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Downtown Charleston restaurant and bar owners recount night of horror as violence unfolded

Uncork Charleston

Glass from a shattered window is scattered over abandoned food at a dining table at Uncork in Charleston on Sunday, May 31, 2020, the morning after protests turned violent the night before in Charleston. Matthew Fortner/Staff

As downtown Charleston bar and restaurant owners on Sunday morning boarded up their windows in anticipation of the possibility there could be another night of vandalism, they uniformly reported their faith in the area’s hospitality community was already steeled.

“All of this has obviously been a challenge, but today was the first day you got overwhelmed by inspiration, and not anxiety,” said Kevin Johnson of The Grocery, who on Wednesday set up guest tables outside of his Cannon Street restaurant, 71 days after shifting to takeout amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Johnson and his employees on Saturday night fled The Grocery after hustling out diners in response to reports that a mob was advancing up King Street. He returned on Sunday morning to find Charleston County Treasurer Mary Tinkler and her son sweeping up glass on his sidewalk. As the day went on, he was visited by many of the same local purveyors who restaurateurs strove to buoy during the state’s mandated dining room closure, each of them offering to help.

After finding bullets lodged in a wall near the restaurant’s restrooms and a huge rock that was apparently hurled through the window closest the bar, “I’m planning for the worst,” Johnson said.

In the faces of people like Harry Root of Grassroots Wine and Mark and Kerry Mahefka of Abundant Seafood, though, he saw the best.

“There is an overwhelming amount of support: Contractors are coming down with plywood,” reported fellow chef-owner Mike Lata.

From his position at The Ordinary on Sunday morning, Lata could gaze down Cannon Street to see boards guarding The Grocery and Babas on Cannon, another stalwart that kept up an active takeout program when most downtown restaurants went dark. Surveying the devastation, he likened it to Armageddon.

“Things seem to be out of control,” he said.

Lata’s first restaurant, FIG, was “ground zero for a couple of hours” on Saturday night. He credited Western Union, the first occupant of the Meeting Street building which houses the award-winning restaurant, with installing plate glass sturdy enough to withstand attacks with flung sidewalk chairs and tables.

But at The Ordinary, a wine bottle was lobbed through the window while guests were still in the dining room; it ricocheted off the floor without hurting anyone, Lata said.

Just before the mob reached The Ordinary, Nathan Wheeler evacuated his guests at Vintage Lounge. He turned the lights on and announced it was time to leave.

According to Wheeler, at least some customers didn’t seem to grasp the seriousness of the situation.

“Of course, there was one customer who was like ‘hey man, can I make a reservation for like 6 people for next weekend right now?’ It was insane: I thought he was joking at first,” said Wheeler, who escaped through the back door to his car. As he pulled out of the parking lot, he saw a man striding down St. Philip Street with a shotgun.

“We had kids and senior citizens in the table close to the window, and once they started breaking through the window, I got everyone out and upstairs,” said Richard Bloom of The Rarebit, one of many restaurant owners to express frustration with the perceived lack of police presence on upper King Street.

Someone picked up when Bloom called 911, but he felt the dispatcher didn’t appreciate the urgency of the situation. “What do you mean?” Bloom remembered saying in exasperated response to a barrage of questions. “Of course I don’t know who the perpetrator is!”

Many of the severely damaged restaurants along upper King Street belong to The Indigo Road restaurant group, including O-Ku, The Macintosh and Indaco. Managing partner Steve Palmer on Sunday declined to comment, saying he was still too emotional to talk.

A Facebook Live video which was widely shared showed a group of about two dozen or so people wandering into O-Ku around 9 p.m.; one of them can be heard saying, “Open the doors: We in here,” before someone apparently launched a firecracker, setting off a crackling cascade of pyrotechnics in the center of a dining room where guests were seated.

“It’s such a helpless feeling not to be able to protect your own business,” said Allison Smith of Glazed Gourmet Doughnuts, which was spared on Saturday night.

But Smith isn’t counting on her luck to hold. In addition to boarding up her bakery on Sunday, she installed a new set of security cameras.

Dave Infante contributed to this report.

Reach Hanna Raskin at 843-937-5560 and follow her on Twitter @hannaraskin.

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