It all started back in 1979 when a car driven by a Jewish guy from Ohio, carrying an Italian girl from Connecticut, ran a stop sign and hit a car full of nuns on Marine Street. That little mishap resulted in an unplanned layover in the nation’s oldest city for Ned Pollack and his then bride, Joy D’Elia. “We thought we would be here for a few days, just until the car was fixed,” says Ned. “That was 40 years ago.”
Just one year after the nun run-in, Ned opened a breakfast place downtown. Things started off slow, but, before long, the Malaga Street Depot was packed. What was the attraction? Variety. That old spice of life, and not just from the kitchen. According to Ned, “The Depot was easy to get to and the food was good and different. You have to have food that everyone can eat: some vegan, some vegetarian, some mainstream stuff. But a big part of it too was that everyone came in there. All kinds of people from all walks of life. That’s what makes life interesting, you know?” From comfort food to hippie food to urban food, there was a little something for everyone.
Ned sold the Depot in ’82 and, on December 27, 1983, opened the doors to one of St. Augustine’s most iconic eateries: Gypsy Cab Company. Named after renegade taxicab drivers in NYC, the building boasted purple neon lights, wild colors, local art, and long lines of people waiting to get in. Ned described the food as “urban cuisine,” saying it was a little bit of a lot of influences – just like his clientele. Loyal diners from the Depot followed him over and, once again, everyone came by to eat. “You always hope you can make a living doing what you love, but, for me, mostly I just wanted to cook. My only agenda then – or ever – was that people enjoy the food.” This goal required having respect for individual palates. “If someone wants something different or a dish that’s not on the menu, why not? I’ll make it. I love to cook. And maybe they know something I don’t.”
The Gypsy was honored with every award and recognition imaginable, and Ned’s reputation in the kitchen continued to grow, along with urban tales about his antics. Ned laughs when asked about the now-infamous chair incident. “Vivian – nice lady – came to do an inspection and said I had too many seats in the dining room.” So he made some quick calculations, tossed a few chairs out the front door and asked for a recount. It worked. And what about the untimely demise of the toaster and those pots and pans? He’s not quite sure he should put that one in writing.
But Ned is also legendary for other qualities, like his kindness and generosity. He makes no distinctions and treats everyone exactly the same. If you wandered in hoping for a cup of coffee and a bowl of soup, then you’d get a handshake, a place at the counter, and a hot meal – just like the person next to you. If you needed a donation for your fundraiser, then you’d get it – no questions asked, and he would probably feed you while you waited. Homemade soup, compliments of Ned, delivered to your door to help you celebrate a birth, recover from an illness, or mourn a loss. All the ‘everyones’ who ever came in to any of his restaurants have their own stories of generosity to tell. Was that really Ned you saw when Hurricane Floyd hit, standing next to a catering van at the rest stops on I-95 and handing out free plates of food to stranded travelers? It was. Or maybe you were downtown when pans of pasta were being unloaded to help feed those who otherwise wouldn’t have had a meal.
In 2003, the unthinkable happened. Ned sold the original Gypsy and opened a new Gypsy in Hendersonville, NC. But, after years of back-and-forth, the pull of home won out and Ned’s Southside Kitchen was born. It was the perfect combination of the Depot and Gypsy: a local hangout with great food; a street-smart, diner attitude; and a drive-through window. Ned credits his team and his loyal St. Augustine ‘family’ for the constant stream of diners, saying he had “the best staff in the business and the best customers on the planet.”
While that fast pace is wonderful for a business, it’s not so wonderful when you’re almost 70 and have family and friends you want to see more of and places you still want to go. “I don’t know if people were all that surprised to hear about the sale,” says Ned of the recent change of ownership of Ned’s. “But you wanna know what the biggest thing is for me? I feel so lucky to have enjoyed my career in this community. It’s the guests and the people I’ve worked with and the people I did business with. All those people. Every one. Those relationships are what success is all about. Will I miss it? Sure.” There’s a pause, and then he simply says, “But, I’m a little tired. It’s time.”