When the gentrification that has hurtled down Charleston's King Street took a sharp left turn onto Spring Street, Ernie's Restaurant was one of the first restaurant casualties.
Ernie's slipped away in late October, its heaping bowls of hot lima beans and smoked turkey necks snuffed out by a rent hike that the restaurant's ailing owner couldn't bear. Although Ernie Kinloch's lunchroom weekly sold thousands of meaty lima bean dinners and was chronicled in a column by former Post and Courier staffer Shirley Greene, the closing mostly went unremarked beyond the neighborhood. Other than a short write-up by Roadfood's Michael Stern, who in 2009 described the okra soup as "hugely satisfying and salubrious," Ernie's didn't snare much national media attention in its 36 years.
About a month after Ernie's locked up its front door grill for the last time, flames ripped through the cookhouse at Scott's Bar-B-Que in Hemingway. The estimated cost of repair was $100,000, which equals about 23,000 pulled pork sandwiches. Such a costly fire could have devastated the restaurant, which has received international acclaim for its traditional wood-fired pits and owner Rodney Scott's prowess at working them. ("Mind-expanding," a writer for Esquire UK recently drooled.)
Instead, Scott's friends arranged for him to haul his mobile rig and sound system to six of the South's top restaurants, smoking whole hogs for a community of food lovers who dream of eating at Scott's the way golfers fantasize about playing Augusta National. The tour yielded $80,000.
John T. Edge, a member of the Fatback Collective, the band of chefs and writers responsible for the tour, described the endeavor as "a barn-raising with a Twitter account." More than that, though, the tour represents a rare happy ending to the story of a folk restaurant in crisis, and suggests a potential mechanism for protecting community institutions endangered by "acts of God" and landlords.
Saving third places
Restaurants have a bad habit of going belly up in their first few years, usually because their owners misread the market or made a mess of the books. But it takes more than mere ineptitude to sink well-established restaurants with cultural significance. The cause of their failures can be grouped into four broad categories: Catastrophe (internal or external) and change of heart (internal or external.)
There's nothing restaurant preservationists can do to counter an internal change of heart. If a deli man decides he's lugged enough briskets up and down the stairs, or a taqueria owner realizes she'd rather fly planes than fry tortillas, forcing them to reconsider is futile.
The external change of heart is equally insurmountable. If a restaurant empties out because nobody's eating watercress salad and curried lobster any more, or because Yelpers claim the food's taken a turn for the inedible, it probably isn't worth preserving. Unlike a neglected schoolhouse, which can be resurrected into something new, a restaurant isn't a good candidate for adaptive reuse. Without cuisine or clientele, there isn't much of the restaurant left to save.
Catastrophes are different matters, since even lively restaurants busy playing vital roles in their communities are susceptible to illnesses, natural disasters and landlord disputes. Before the Fatback Collective was formed, the Southern Foodways Alliance stepped in to salvage New Orleans' Willie Mae's Scotch House after Hurricane Katrina, and deployed volunteers to Humboldt, Tenn., when Sam's Bar-B-Q was wrecked by fire.
"These are important places," says former College of Charleston historic preservation professor Robert Russell, now at Salve Regina University. Citing Ray Oldenburg's theory of third places, or social gathering spaces away from work and home, Russell adds, "The life that goes on inside these buildings is every bit as important as the structure itself."
The work of swinging sledgehammers and passing the hat for restaurant rehabilitation eventually shifted from the Southern Foodways Alliance (which Edge directs) to the Fatback Collective because it's extraordinarily difficult for a nonprofit organization to work on behalf of a for-profit enterprise. Edge concedes even the change in project authorship hasn't placated some critics, who aren't comfortable with the idea of donating money to a needy business. "There are always going to be people grumbling," he says.
The skepticism surrounding restaurant preservation efforts isn't purely capitalistic. Perhaps because so much culinary progress is based on nostalgia for lost flavors, not every restaurant lover supports disrupting the natural cycle of openings and closings.
"Sometimes the best thing that can happen is the old goes away and makes room for the new," says Houstonia Magazine's Robb Walsh, who in 2011 helped open El Real Tex-Mex Cafe, where the recipes and aesthetic are largely based on the research Walsh did for books including "The Tex-Mex Cookbook."
Walsh traveled across Texas, tracking down the state's oldest Tex-Mex restaurants, but the thought of restaurants shuttering before he could find them doesn't especially faze him: He thinks El Real chef Bryan Caswell does a pretty good job with cheese enchiladas and beef fajitas.
What bothers him is the prospect of artificially propping up restaurants that no longer serve their original purpose: He points to New York City's legendary Katz's Delicatessen (keep that name in mind: Walsh isn't the only food writer with strong feelings about Katz's) as an example of a restaurant that's abandoned its founding culinary principles to please tourists.
"You should get money and turn it into a deli museum," Walsh says. "That's the only way to do it. New York needs a deli museum."
For certain eaters, freezing a restaurant in time is preferable to trying to preserve it as an active entity, since renovations and reconstructions, and the exposure that accompanies the sometimes public process of funding them, are apt to change a restaurant in essential ways. In Charleston, it doesn't take too much looking to come up with someone who bemoans the rebuilding of Bowen's Island Restaurant after its 2006 fire.
But the Fatback Collective found thousands of barbecue devotees who apparently hew to a different philosophy. The problem for these preservation-minded eaters is puzzling out a practical way to keep meaningful restaurants afloat.
Asked about the difference between preserving buildings and preserving restaurants, Donovan Rypkema, considered the nation's foremost expert in preservation economics, says, "The first one is hellishly hard, and the second one is even harder."
NYC's cautionary tale
Worries about restaurant survival have lately surfaced in Britain, where a new law allows citizens to petition to have a pub declared an "asset of community value," a designation that brings with it protection from demolition and facilitates the pub's purchase by community groups. As reported by The New York Times, approximately 300 pubs have received the designation since its introduction last year.
Local pubs were already on a closing course when the 2008 financial crisis seized Britain. Since then, 7,000 pubs have closed nationwide.
Food writer Robert Sietsema says he's witnessed a similar escalation in New York City. "There has never been an age where realtors were so emboldened," he says.
Sietsema has meticulously chronicled the mounting losses of iconic restaurants, from Gage and Tollner, which ended its 112-year run on Fulton Street in 2004, to the second-to-last Gray's Papaya, which succumbed to rising rents in January. Sietsema is now closely monitoring a few dozen restaurants he considers municipal treasures.
"The place I'm petrified about going out of business is Katz's," he says. "Katz's is so vulnerable. The people who own the restaurant ... anyone can be tempted if the price is right."
In addition to stimulating sales, rising property prices in New York have led to rents that only national franchises can afford. According to Sietsema, it's not uncommon for landlords to double the rent on a space. "Loan officers think food is big, and they're bullish on development," he says, explaining how well-capitalized franchises such as Dunkin Donuts have colonized the city.
In many cases, though, even the franchises can't keep up with New York City rent bills, and Sietsema thinks they know it. In a scheme familiar to any Risk player who's crowded troops into Venezuela for the sole purpose of gaining control of South America, franchises are installing locations "to cynically drive the mom-and-pops out of business" then closing up shop.
To stall the destruction of restaurants in the franchises' paths, Sietsema recently put together a "historic restaurant preservation plan," in which he calls for the city to convene a committee of a chef, a city councilperson and a real estate representative. The panel would be tasked with designating 30 "irreplaceable dining institutions," which would gain a high degree of protection, including rent controls.
"The idea is to realize what that food has become to us," Sietsema says, explaining why Katz's would be on his list. "Not just to eaters, not just to Jewish people, not just to Romanians. It's history. You would no more tear down the statue of George Washington in Union Square."
It's not exactly clear how a committee would measure irreplaceability. "It's going to cause controversy, but even this is interesting, because it draws people's attentions to what's worthy," Sietsema says. The cultural battles that have lately erupted in historic preservation circles over whether a Tower Records on L.A.'s Sunset Strip or the San Antonio office building that birthed Univision should be saved would likely be intensified in a culinary context.
"Unlike buildings, where there's a stylistic preference of A over B, (food) is much more based on personal taste," Rypkema says.
To overcome the personal taste factor, a municipality administering a restaurant preservation program would likely devise a set of objective standards. But, as Edge says, "When you end up with standards for restaurants, you end up talking about issues of authenticity and longevity, and those are, at face value, great measures, but not always the most telling measures."
"If you want to measure Rodney's restaurant in years, that's not illustrative of Rodney's importance to the community," he continues. "Restaurants that matter aren't always old."
Interestingly, although Sietsema uses the word "irreplaceable," he doesn't envision an unchanging list: He imagines the committee would revisit and update the roster according to current conditions, and as a way of acknowledging the fluidity of dining culture.
This is where restaurant protection deviates dramatically from building preservation: When preservationists save buildings, it's supposed to be forever. The project at Scott's, by contrast, was designed to perpetuate the pitmaster's individual artistry: "I don't see (Scott) passing the torch any more than Sean Brock would at Husk," says Reggie Gibson, the Charleston architect developing the rebuilding plan.
Foundation for survival
Because restaurants exist at the intersection of art, commerce and culture, it's difficult to borrow a sustainable funding model from any one realm. But art may come closest. Even though artists are one-person businesses, they're frequently the beneficiaries of charitable giving. There are a number of musician relief funds, and it's not unusual for communities to financially support visual artists who have suffered personal tragedies. They also depend on the generosity of grant-giving organizations, which is very close to how the Fatback Collective functioned in Scott's case.
"You could think about Fatback as a foundation board," Edge says, adding that the group isn't bound by any judgment standards other than its members' gut instincts.
Thus far, there aren't many groups of friends who've made protecting restaurants their pastime. But Sietsema thinks one more major closing could be enough to motivate restaurateurs like Danny Meyer and Mario Batali to back similar efforts. In this food-obsessed century, saving a restaurant could become the modern version of going in on a yacht or a racehorse.
"There needs to be a way to bypass capitalism," Russell says. "In this country, practically speaking, that's not going to happen. But sure, if you had an extremely wealthy patron who had an eccentric hobby, you could do that. If you can get people enthused, when that works, that's a great way to do it."
If there's a sudden fervor for freelance restaurant protection, it probably won't immediately reach overlooked restaurants such as Ernie's. Even building preservation began with the monuments, Rypkema says. Now, "It's moved from thinking about Mount Vernon to thinking about a row of side entry houses in Charleston."
Until there's a more structured approach to restaurant protection, Russell believes the onus is on eaters to contribute to the continued survival of restaurants such as Martha Lou's Kitchen, Bertha's Kitchen and Dave's Carry-Out.
"Eat at them," he says. "It's easy to talk about 'this place or that place has been really important to me,' and then you realize the last time you ate there was two years ago."
Reach Hanna Raskin at 937-5560.
Rodney Scott, owner of Scott’s Bar-B-Que in Hemingway, picks barbecue in front of Jim ‘n Nick’s on King Street during a Sunday on King event. Scott’s business was hit by a fire and he started off his “Rodney in Exile tour” in Charleston.×
Photo credit: Catherine Mayhew Rodney Scott helped rebuild Sam’s Bar-B-Q in Humboldt, Tenn., in July 2012 without knowing his Hemingway pit would suffer a similar fate more than a year later.×
After Ernie’s Restaurant on Spring Street closed, Jack Cox, working next door on a construction project, said, “At least 25 to 30 people have come by the last two weeks just plain mad the place was out of business and wondering when, or if, it would reopen.”×
Rodney Scott, owner of Scott’s Bar-B-Que in Hemingway, responds to a message on his phone while surveying the damage to his smokehouse that burned in a fire the day before Thanksgiving last year.×
Rodney Scott helps rebuild Sam’s Bar-B-Q in Humboldt, Tenn., in 2012.×