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New restaurant weathering COVID-19 storm
Riley's is located at 336 S. Columbia Ave. in Rincon. - photo by Mark Lastinger/staff
I heard about (COVID-19) for the first time in September or October of last year. I never thought it would come down to this, that it would basically cripple (the restaurant industry) ...
Brandy Riley, Riley's co-owner

RINCON — Every tasty item on a new Rincon restaurant’s menu is served with a huge helping of determination.

Riley’s, a casual-dining eatery, officially opened March 20 in the midst of the global COVID-19 pandemic, leading to a difficult start in the wake of shortened hours and social distancing efforts to combat the contagious respiratory disease.

“We quietly opened our doors on St. Patrick’s Day,” Riley’s co-owner Brandy Riley said Friday. “We opened our doors to the general public and kind of ran several services which were kind of soft to help our staff train. Then I posted that Friday that we had opened our doors but we did not do anything like what we wanted to do because we just didn’t feel like it was right during this time.”

Despite the challenges brought on by the nation’s state of emergency, Riley is committed to not letting her longtime dream of owning a restaurant turn into a nightmare. 

“I heard about (COVID-19) for the first time in September or October of last year,” she said. “I never thought it would come down to this, that it would basically cripple (the restaurant industry) ...”

Riley didn’t finish her thought because she was fighting back tears.

“I’ve been very emotional the last several days,” she said after quickly gathering her emotions. “I will be fine. This business will still go on. We will still open our doors when all of this is said and done.

“My only goal right now is to keep my employees working.”

Riley’s features 30 workers. None have been laid off.

“Right now, I am pumping food out for family meals that we are losing money on but at least it is bringing in revenue so that I can lose a few dollars and still pay my employees,” she said. 

If necessary, Riley said she will keep the business that she co-owns with Patti Horton afloat during the COVID-19 crisis with her credit cards.

“They will hold me for a long time,” she said. “It’s just getting through long enough to make payroll. That’s all I have to do.

“That’s the focus.”

Riley doesn’t expect her restaurant to receive anything from the $2 trillion aid package that Congress recently passed to help businesses and workers weather the storm.

“We weren’t open Jan. 1,” she said with a heavy sigh while calculating an employee’s wages. “From everything I’ve read, I have to have a history (as a taxpaying business) — and I don’t. I feel like the unluckiest person on the planet.

“I do. I do.”

Riley has been heartened by support from Rincon City Council members, especially James Dasher. The council has aimed to land a restaurant like Riley’s for years.

“They have truly stood behind us,” Riley said. “James Dasher checks on us all the time to see how we are doing.”

Riley’s career desire and the council’s objective of acquiring a family restaurant mesh perfectly.

“I started thinking about it several years ago,” Riley said. “I was at Gulfstream, where I worked for 16 years. Over the course of my last five years there, I started thinking about owning my own restaurant.”

During that time, Riley kept her eyes on the building a 336 S. Columbia Ave.

“Before the previous owner took this lease, I caught wind that it was going to become available but I didn’t have my business plan together. I wasn’t ready,” she said. “Over the last year while the business that was here (Amendment XVIII Bar & Grille) was in operation, I developed my business plan and got some things in line so that I would be able to do it if this space became available because I wanted this space.”

Riley said the size of the building and its location were enticing. It includes a patio that boosts its occupancy to 325.

“I could see the vision,” she said. “I could see the remodel in here and how it would look. I already had it in my mind.”

Riley radically transformed the building after signing a lease at the end of December 2019. She had its drop ceiling removed and replaced the dining area’s dark colors, providing a brighter, more spacious look.

“The purpose was the casual dining, making it kind of homey, making it a true family restaurant that gave a variety of options,” Riley said. “When my family wanted to go out to eat — I have two girls and they are picky on different spectrums — there was nothing in Effingham County that appealed to the four of us going out to eat. We were always going to Savannah or Pooler to eat.

“Effingham needed a restaurant that had enough variety on its menu to appeal to the entire family. That was the goal — and to keep Effingham (residents) in Effingham to eat.”

The menu at Riley’s is wide ranging. It offers soups, salads, wings, steaks, burgers, sandwiches, wraps and home-style meals.

“And our sides include everything from fried cabbage to onion rings,” Riley said. “We have rice and beans, mashed potatoes, mac and cheese ...”

The specialty at Riley’s is steaks. It serves certified Angus beef.

Riley’s also offers liquor and beer.

“At some point, I will be able to market and claim the coldest beer in the county because we are tied directly into a walk-in cooler,” she said. “Those are marketing things down the road. Now is not the time.”

Riley isn’t letting her immediate problems keep her from looking ahead.

“This is not the only location for Riley’s” she said. “Riley’s has a future, a franchise future. There will be more than one location.

“That’s been the vision from the beginning. We will get through this.”

Riley’s is currently limited to curbside and takeout service. Customers can order online at or call 912-826-0009.

“People can come in to get (their food) or we will take it to them. It’s whatever they are most comfortable with,” Riley said. “Our full menu is available but we are also offering family meals.”

The family meals will feed four people at a cost of $30-$35. Options include Pirates Bounty (fried fish, fried shrimp, hushpuppies, fries, coleslaw), Chicken Alfredo (Alfredo pasta with chicken), garlic bread, house salad), Pork Chops (grilled or fried pork chops, pick two sides) and  Fried Chicken (eight pieces of chicken, pick two sides). The sides include green beans, potato salad, corn, macaroni and cheese, and mashed potatoes and gravy.

Family meals come with four slices of chocolate cake.

Riley’s intends to be open seven days a week when the COVID-19 restrictions are eased. Currently, however, it is open 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Monday-Thursday and 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Friday and Saturday.

“If nothing else, if we do get to a point where everything is normal service, our staff will be excellent,” Riley said with a laugh. “All our training kinks should be worked out.”