Savanna Cafe, enhanced bison exhibit open at Turtle Back Zoo

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WEST ORANGE, NJ — Essex County officially opened the new Savanna Cafe and an enhanced bison exhibit at the Turtle Back Zoo on Thursday, April 28. The two-story, 16,500-square-foot dining facility is more than three times as large as Turtle Back’s old cafeteria building and provides additional space to accommodate the large crowds at the tourist hub. In addition, changes to the bison exhibit provide enhanced viewing areas for the public to see the animals.

“In each of the last 11 years, we set new annual attendance records and last year we welcomed over 750,000 visitors. Turtle Back Zoo has become a destination attraction for school groups, organizations and families, and a larger cafeteria was needed so that we could accommodate the large crowds and continue to provide our visitors with a first-class experience,” Essex County Executive Joseph DiVincenzo Jr. said in a press release. “The new Savanna Cafe offers a unique view overlooking our zoo grounds and offers flexible space that can be used as a dining area or to host larger, special events.”

“The color of the building, the thatched roof — this is really a beautiful place. The way the building is set against the natural beauty of the zoo creates a real connection to the environment,” Assembly speaker emeritus Sheila Oliver said at the event.

“The Savanna Cafe is another great project at Turtle Back Zoo and it was much-needed. Attendance here has soared year after year and having to build a larger cafeteria building speaks volumes about how popular an attraction our zoo has become,” Turtle Back Zoo Director Brint Spencer said.

The Savanna Cafe has a first-floor dining area that is approximately 9,125 square feet with seating for 106 people and a second-floor dining area that has an enclosed 2,000-square-foot dining area and an outdoor terrace that is about 5,125 square feet, with total seating for 266 people. The kitchen area on the first floor is larger, which allows a greater variety of meals and snacks to be prepared and offered, and a larger area from which patrons can order food. An increased number of checkout lanes will reduce congestion and create less crowded areas to walk. The second floor also has a bar area that can be used for private parties and events.

Named the Savanna Cafe, the building has thatched roofs and is decorated with bamboo ceilings and pictures of forests, deserts and other habitats on the walls. A retaining wall in front of the building is designed to resemble a 75-foot long snake and there is an outdoor dining patio with seats for 40 people. The facility is completely handicapped accessible.

The new building was constructed over the footprint of the old one-story Zoo Cafe, which was just a 5,000-square-foot building with a walkup counter to order food and limited indoor seating.

Greg Comito Associates from Newark received a $295,000 contract to design the Savanna Cafe. John O’Hara Co. Inc. from East Orange was awarded a publicly bid contract for $6,661,907 to construct the facility. The Essex County Department of Public Works monitored the project and answered questions to avoid delays. The building was funded through the Essex County capital budget. Construction started in September and took just eight months to complete.

In addition to the cafe, changes were made to the bison exhibit located in the Great Plains area. The footprint of the exhibit was enlarged to create a raised boardwalk viewing area that will enable visitors to get closer to see the animals, the facade of the animal holding area was updated with a stone facing and a glass wall was installed so that there are no obstructions to see into the exhibit area.

“We are always looking for new ways to enhance our visitors’ experience when they come to Turtle Back Zoo. The bison exhibit is one of our largest, and the changes we made will help our guests get a closer and unobstructed view of these gentle giants,” DiVincenzo said.

French and Parrello from Wall designed the improvements to the exhibit as part of an existing contract. Zenith Construction Services from East Newark was awarded a publicly bid contract for $549,900 to perform the construction work. The Department of Public Works monitored the project to answer questions and avoid delays. The improvements were funded with grants from the NJ Green Acres program and the Essex County Recreation and Open Space Trust Fund. Work started in February and was completed in three months.

Photos Courtesy of Glen Frieson

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