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The best medicine
Whitemarsh pizzeria provides full health care for employees
Holli and Scott Jackson own and operate Siciliano's, on Whitemarsh Island.

When you think "pizzeria," you don't usually think health insurance. Think again.

Siciliano's, a humble but popular locally-owned pizza place and bar on Whitemarsh Island, has provided full medical and dental coverage for its eight employees since owners Scott and Holli Jackson bought the business five years ago.

"We never had any hesitation," says Holli.

"It was a given," says Scott, simply.

That attitude is rare enough for small businesses, but almost unheard of in family-owned restaurants and bars, which generally rely on a rotating stable of part-time workers, nearly always uninsured.

During this time when so many businesses are shedding health insurance because of cost, Siciliano's willingness to provide health care - in a 50/50 cost split with employees -- shows not only a desire to do the right thing, but makes for a more profitable business as well.

Simply put, it's a win-win situation: The employees enjoy a higher standard of living, and in return the Jacksons get more productive employees who don't get sick as often or pilfer from their employer.

"We're probably the only pizzeria in town with no turnover," Holli says. "The employees that do leave, leave for college or a job within their education. With us paying half, they stay with us and still get the insurance they need without having to look for another job, get another job, or leave us altogether."

Perhaps counter-intuitively, offering health care coverage means fewer sick days.

"You get less call-ins," explains Scott. "If they feel a cold maybe starting, they can make a doctor's appointment and it doesn't cost them an arm and a leg. They can grab some antibiotics, and bam, they're not full-blown into the flu trying to serve drinks."

But for Scott, it's not necessarily about dollars and cents. "Being an optimist, I feel we're coming out ahead regardless, because of the loyalty."

That word "loyalty" comes up often in conversations at Siciliano's.

"You won't find another place in town that does this," says kitchen manager Mike Sapp. "Applebee's, sure, but that's a chain. We're like family here. Scott and Holli are loyal to us, and we're loyal to them."

The Jacksons didn't acquire Siciliano's out of the blue. Before buying it, they were involved with the pizzeria when it was called Uncle Vinnie's, and they developed relationships with many of the people who would become - and remain - their future employees.

Bartender Ashley Stokes, now 22, began working at Uncle Vinnie's nearly seven years ago. Not old enough yet to tend bar, she started out on the restaurant side.

"I love it. I've had a couple of other jobs here and there but this is like a second home to me. We're all family."

Stokes graduates this fall with a business degree from Savannah State University, and laughs that "I'm not really looking forward to it. If there was any way I could come back and use my degree and work here I would do that - it's the perfect job."

Now that the place has been Siciliano's for five years, she says "we have a lot of the same customers we had before. It has everything to do with the employees -- if you treat them right, they'll treat the customers right."

In another departure from the industry norm, unlike most food-and-bev establishments all employees at Siciliano's are full-time by design.

"Keeping everybody at full-time hours keeps everybody happy. If you doubled the employees working in here, with everybody part-time - do you know how much drama you'd have in this place?" laughs Scott. "When it comes to staffing and the type of employees you really want, hiring full-time tends to weed out the people who just don't care about things."

Indeed, the longer you talk to the Jacksons, the more you realize that health care is just part of their larger view of how to run a good business.

"We wouldn't be here right now if the food wasn't good," says Scott. "And we especially wouldn't be here right now if our employees weren't who they are."

Perhaps the whole health care connection has to do with Scott and Holli's backgrounds. He moved to Savannah in 1990 from the northeast to develop the critical care technicians program for the intensive care unit at Memorial Health University Medical Center. "I just learned how to make pizza when I was a kid," he laughs.

Holli attended pre-med classes, and eventually became a surgical assistant for awhile. "I still love it, I miss it. But I love this more," she says.

While that likely had a lot to do with how they chose to run their business, Scott also says that "I still think there's a place for karma. If you treat people like crap, eventually it's all going to come back to you."

Holli agrees. "The best answer I can think of is that Scott and I agreed when we bought the business that we would treat our employees the way we would want to be treated, and that's the best way I can put it."