Taste of Excitement

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In the black predawn of August 26, 2014, Seni and Janetta Alabi-Isama (’03 ) watched a dream go up in red flames. Their fledgling Statesboro restaurant, South and Vine Public House, was gone. In under two years, the eclectic menu and the ever-present sense of welcome had made it a downtown favorite, attracting students and their visiting parents, alumni and the Statesboro community. It had earned favorable reviews in regional publications and even a visit from former President Jimmy Carter for a post-commencement meal with a graduating grandson. Now it was gone.

“There were 30- to 40-foot flames coming out of the building,” said Seni. “It was just devastation.”

Yet, from those flames came a flicker of new possibility. Within months, 441 Public Kitchen and Bar began to rise: a new location on South Main, a logo and a Facebook page with over a thousand fans, literally hungry for the bistro’s return. That’s high praise for any restaurateur, but no one is more impatient than the owners for the opening. “We need this restaurant,” affirms Janetta. “It’s an outlet for us, and we didn’t know how much until we lost it.”

If that seems like an unusual viewpoint, a little history on the Alabi-Isamas will help. Seni, an Atlanta-area native, came to Georgia Southern in 1997 to study history and English. He and Janetta dated in high school, and she arrived on campus a few years later, graduating with a bachelor’s in Special Education. Seni had already launched a successful computer business and Janetta began her career as a special education teacher.

SPRING15taste-of-excitement-1As they began to build a post-college life in Statesboro, they found themselves drawn to a local restaurant, Christopher’s. “That’s where I met everyone who’s a friend,” laughs Seni. When it closed, there was a hole in their social life. The couple sometimes filled the gap by entertaining their old friends at home at what they call “Seni’s feasts.” Seni started cooking with his mother and grandmother when he was 8 years old. “People told him for years he should open a restaurant,” Janetta insists, “but he didn’t realize what he does is special.”

In the meantime, Seni’s computer business was going well. “Too well,” Janetta says. “He was busy, tired and stressed all the time.” His stress reliever? Cooking. “He’d come home at 8:30 or 9 o’clock and start cooking to relax.”

When another restaurant Seni loved closed in 2013, he decided to take the space – and the leap of faith into his own restaurant. “I had no idea what it took to run a restaurant,” he recalls. In fact, he’d never even worked in one. What he did have was a gift for cooking, an entrepreneurial edge, and experience running a business. “I researched everything,” he laughs, “and changed if something wasn’t working.”
Success came quickly, built as much on guests’ warm connection with Seni and Janetta as their appreciation of the food. The couple recognized people who came in, knew their favorite dishes and remembered their favorite table. “We made it a place where people felt at home, enjoyed the food, and wanted to hang out,” says Seni. “It was so much fun,” adds Janetta who would teach all day and still find herself energized by the hustle and bustle of the dining room. “We’re just very social people.”

With the rebuilding of the new restaurant, their recipe for success has been super-sized. In a tasty twist of fate, it takes over the space of Seni’s beloved Christopher’s, creating a restaurant double the size of the lost South and Vine. There is twice the seating and a full bar. The kitchen is state of the art, including a full bakery. “We made a lot of our food from scratch before, and now it will be almost everything. The new restaurant features house-made barbecue sauces, desserts, breads, and even ketchup and mayonnaise.” There’s a focus on locally grown, seasonal and sustainable food, too. “People who come here have an expectation of quality. ‘Good enough’ is not what we do.”

The restaurant plans to continue a tradition of bringing the unexpected to the table. It might be a new take on an old favorite or a chance to sample rabbit or elk. Says Seni, “Why would people want to eat the same thing every time they come?” To garner fresh ideas for their business, Seni and Janetta spend their vacations visiting restaurants. 441 Public even has a library of hundreds of cookbooks to inspire Seni and the staff.

With the move to a new location, you can see there’s a different kind of fire burning in this new restaurant—the fire of Seni’s and Janetta’s spirit to serve up great meals and good times. “441 Public is going to be the kind of place where I’d want to be whether it was mine or not,” promises Seni. Janetta agrees. “We want people to come as they are and stay as long as they want.” – Lynn Lilly

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