River Street Sweets Candy Store in Savannah
Life is Sweet on Savannah's River Street
While it's hard to say for certain when exactly the first praline arrived in historic Savannah, there's no argument that one man, one family, put the city on the map in praline history.
That man is Stan Strickland, my father, and the founder of River Street Sweets and Savannah's Candy Kitchen. But, he's so much more than my father and a business owner. He's a dreamer, a visionary, an original, a creator, an entrepreneur and a legend on River Street.
The early years
For years, my parents and grandparents longed for an opportunity to start a family business they felt passionate about, and thankfully, because River Street didn't attract the attention of established businesses and investors, the old neglected buildings along the Savannah River were cheap and up for the taking. So in 1973, when I was about eight years old and River Street was little more than a glorified parking lot, River Street Sweets opened its doors among less than a dozen fellow businesses operating across the mile-long stretch.
Joining my parents and grandparents along the forgotten riverfront – where I can still remember riding the rail cars from one end to the other – were the other dreamers of Savannah. Bohemian merchants and vendors who sold custom artwork and handmade crafts, not looking to get rich but to bring joy to the people who visited. During those days, the businesses along River Street were driven by passion, love for the products being made, and the rich culture of one of Savannah's most historic districts.
Former Savannah Mayor John P. Rousakis was a dreamer, too. Just like the original tenants of River Street in the 1970s, Rousakis saw and believed in the historical charm of downtown Savannah. It is one of the oldest cities, with one of the country's largest historic districts, after all. That kind of charisma just can't be replicated. So, the visionary that he was, Rousakis saw River Street as a goldmine. He knew that with a healthy investment, a lot of time, and a commitment from the city and its people, he could bring something really special to Savannah's riverfront. Today’s surging tourism in Savannah is a testament to that vision.
With a team of brilliant minds and visionaries, including architects Eric Meyerhoff and Robert Gunn lead designers on Rousakis Riverfront Plaza, Mayor Rousakis put together a plan to not only invigorate River Street but to redefine a forgotten section of historic Savannah.
But, things certainly got worse before they got better. For two years we watched River Street be torn to pieces; the ground ripped up, exposing the old rebar and whatever "treasures" were hidden under years of overlaid concrete. I say treasures because during the construction phase, crews would gather up the interesting items dug up from under the street – some of it trash, some of it of actual historic value – and sell them to the kids during the city's monthly First Saturday events. As a child, it really felt like you had a piece of history in those little brown bags, even if it was just an old bottle or coin.
And though some of that history was hauled away in dump trucks during demolition, plenty of it still exists today. In fact, one of the most revered aspects of River Street and Rousakis Riverfront Plaza is the original ballast stone, carried into Savannah on trade ships during the 18th century, cobbled into the streets and walls that line the riverfront.
The investment Rousakis put into improving Savannah’s riverfront not only invigorated the tenants who called it home, it brought a renewed sense of pride to the community as a whole. Finally, we had a riverfront to be proud of and something that would attract the tourists who once only saw Savannah as a pitstop on the way to Florida.
To this day, Rousakis Riverfront Plaza is the foundation – literally and figuratively – to Savannah's tourism industry. When the plaza earned its dedication in 1977, the few of us who were already established on River Street knew that it defined our futures.
A dream come true
The tourism boom came gradually in the beginning. Local residents touted the beautiful waterfront to family and friends. The locals themselves even started frequenting the downtown shops after years away. But, it wasn’t until the Florida snowbirds and vacationers treated Savannah as its own destination, that we saw the tides turn. It became more than just a pitstop as visitors were struck by the history, romance and architecture of the Hostess City. Once you truly see Savannah and all the beauty it holds, you never forget it.
As more people started to visit Rousakis Riverfront Plaza, the city invested in more local activities and events. As a result, more businesses started occupying the once dilapidated buildings, which in turn attracted more visitors. That cycle continues to this day.
For me, it’s hard to imagine River Street any differently. Not only did I grow up in my family's business at River Street Sweets, but I also witnessed the transformation of an entire community. Thanks to the foresight of Mr. Rousakis, my family and I have made our lives and our living in a place that has always felt like home. We were given the opportunity to prosper along a section of the Savannah River that, before 1977, was nothing more than a river bank. And that same opportunity has since allowed us to build a candy empire in which we can share a little piece of the South with people across the country.
That all comes from the vision of Mr. Rousakis. He took a chance on a project he felt passionate about, in a city that he adored. It's safe to say that all of Savannah owes our former mayor a huge thank you, especially those of us who have called River Street home for more than 40 years.