WEST ORANGE, NJ -- Eight months after the start of construction, the fully renovated Savannah Cafe at the Turtleback Zoo was unveiled in ceremonies April 28 as the newly unveiled Bison Exhibit and other upcoming projects were also revealed.

On May 10, the long-awaited debut of Turtleback Zoo's two new giraffes will take place. Additional plans for this year also include moving the condor exhibit, a new lion exhibit and a renovation of the sea turtle building.

County Executive Joe DiVincenzo, members of the Board of Freeholders, construction executives, zoo staff and zoo volunteers crowded the new second-floor level of the cafe for the official re-opening. Construction started in September and cost about $7 million. Greg Comito Associates from Newark created the design and John O’Hara Co., Inc., from East Orange was awarded a publicly bid contract for for construction.

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The cafe is built on the footprint of the old cafeteria and is more than three times as large to accommodate more visitors. In addition, the food offerings have been upgraded from what was described as cafeteria food to various offerings which include carving stations and other upscaled treats. Aramark has been given a 20-year contract to run the facility.

The most evident change is the second-story, which includes a separate glass-enclosed room which can be used for meetings and parties. DiVincenzo said the increase in traffic to the zoo warranted a bigger cafe to serve people better.

"When our administration first took office, the zoo had maybe 1,000 visitors a day. It steadily increased so now there can be 5-6,000 visitors a day on weekdays, and up to 7,500 on weekends," said DiVincenzo.

In 2015, the zoo had record attendance exceeding 750,000.

"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,” said DiVincenzo.

Others speaking at the event praised DiVincenzo's vision and the staffs of the construction and catering companies involved in the project. 

“All the concepts start in Joe DiVincenzo’s head," said Essex County Sheriff Armando Fontoura. "He builds it and then it is our job to keep things as safe as they can be… and this complex is the safest neighborhood. It’s a magnificent place.”  

DiVincenzo returned the compliment, saying that without the police force capable of handling large crowds, the success of the zoo would not be possible.

Turtle Back Zoo's Brint Spencer also touched on the increased attendance, saying, “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.” 

"There really isn’t any reason to leave this complex once you arrive,” said Zoological Society Executive Director Adam Kerins, who also noted the Treetop Adventure, miniGOLF Safari, paddle boating and access to South Mountain Reservation.

The cafe's first-floor dining area seats 106 people and the second-floor dining area has total seating for 266 people. The second floor also has a bar area that can be used for private parties and events.

Also unveiled were new additions to the bison exhibit, which included a raised-boardwalk viewing area so visitors can get closer to see the animals through the glass wall that was also part of the upgrade.