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Downtown Charleston restaurant owners find glimmers of hope in last weeks of dreadful year

Vintage Lounge

Charcuterie is made for patrons at Vintage Lounge Thursday, Oct. 8, 2020, in Charleston. Grace Beahm Alford/Staff

The Post and Courier Food section is checking in weekly with four downtown Charleston restaurants coping with the coronavirus pandemic and recovering from restrictions designed to contain it. For previous installments of the series, as well as more information about the four featured restaurants and their chosen strategies for success, click here.

 

Vintage Lounge: Finishing truffles

What the new year will bring is always a mystery. New Year’s Eve, though? Restaurant owners know precisely how that will go, down to how many bottles of bubbles they’ll clear and how many customers they’ll have to cut off before closing time.

But at press time, Gov. Henry McMaster was still standing by his order prohibiting bars and restaurants from serving alcohol after 11 p.m., despite the S.C. Restaurant and Lodging Association lobbying for him to relent for just one night. With last call firmly lodged in 2020, it’s almost impossible for restaurateurs to predict how customers will behave.

Will they treat 11 p.m. as the new midnight, partying up until the law puts them in the street? Or will they skip going out on New Year’s Eve, opting to drink and dine without a curfew?

“Anyone's guess is as good as mine,” Vintage Lounge Nathan Wheeler admits.

Wheeler suspects people will still want to celebrate away from home. While Vintage isn’t throwing its usual New Year’s Eve party, Wheeler is hosting Babas on Cannon owner Edward Crouse, known in local restaurant circles as the city’s truffle pipeline. Vintage is serving raclette for the holiday, and Crouse will be on hand to shave white or black truffles over the melted cheese.

Putting an optimistic gloss on a regulation that South Carolina bar owners say is decimating their business, Wheeler says, “I think we are all looking for an excuse to get dressed up and ring in the new year sooner” than the clock commands.

 

Chasing Sage: All in on ramen

“We all work in a ramen restaurant now,” Chasing Sage general Maxfield Clarke said on a recent Thursday afternoon before service. “Didn’t see that coming!”

After months of hopscotching the culinary globe for a series of short-term pop-ups, the Chasing Sage team has settled in Japan. Following a Christmas break, they’ll resume the Everybody Loves Ramen format they rolled out in November. And they intend to remain a takeout ramen joint for the foreseeable future.

“The idea of sticking with ramen is giving us a chance to think about the future of Chasing Sage,” co-owner Walter Edward says.

When the restaurant switched up formats every few weeks, he says, he and his partners were perpetually exhausted by coming up with new ideas and reordering the back-of-house to match. “It’s nice not to have homework on Sunday,” co-owner Forrest Brunton agrees.

Plus, their relentless creativity had a downside: Brunton says the restaurant was gaining a reputation for being “the place that always changes its concept,” with the fluidity potentially overshadowing the care they expend on their dishes.

It was also unclear to customers that one set of chefs was responsible for each of the themes, since it’s not intuitive to attribute Peruvian shellfish stew and spaetzle to the same people.

Co-owner Cindy Edward says she was asked to identify the cooks so many times that she considered creating a social media story to clarify the arrangement.

“I take a lot of pride that we just have two guys slinging it in the kitchen,” she says.

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Still, the Chasing Sagers push back on the idea that they would have come to a rest after a certain number of switches, no matter what. Ramen has multiple advantages, they say. People love it; it’s well suited to wintry weather and soup demand is consistent throughout the week.

Also, unlike its predecessors, it’s keeping its hold on team members’ palates. By the time they perfected dishes for previous menus, they were often tired of eating them. Brunton says he told himself with each rotation that he would want to eat the featured dishes every day, but his intent didn’t materialize until they started making noodles.

“Ramen is just so comforting,” he says.

As for the planned Polynesian menu which Chasing Sage abandoned when it made a full-bore commitment to its current lineup, it wasn’t a total loss: Edward and Brunton prepared it for a Joint Base Charleston Christmas party they catered at a loyal customer’s request.

 

Harold's Cabin: Welcoming light

John Schumacher of Harold’s Cabin is staying focused on the present: “With Christmas fast approaching, I decided to check on the folks at Joseph Floyd Manor,” he reports. The restaurant in March donated toilet paper to residents, and Schumacher is participating in a Secret Santa program organized on their behalf by community group Enough Pie.

Still, with 10 months of closure behind him, last week offered a tiny glimpse of the future.

“The recent approval and rollout of a vaccine certainly was a welcoming light,” he says. “Although not a panacea for our decision, it is definitely a critical factor: Without a vaccine, nothing can move forward.”

 

Butcher & Bee: Forecasting sales

From the moment that Butcher & Bee returned to indoor table service, it was clear to team members that they had made the right decision from an emotional standpoint: It felt good to be back in something approximating normal business. But they couldn’t be sure at the start of ramifications for the restaurant’s bottom line.

Now that they’ve seen last week’s receipts, the decision feels even better.

“We had the largest sales that we’ve had since we’ve been back, which was great,” general manager Drisa Lamb says. “It was surprising in the most gratifying way.”

According to owner Michael Shemtov, sales were up 40 percent week-over-week, in part because “things started falling off a cliff in mid-November.”

There is no way to know why revenue took a dismal turn around Thanksgiving. It’s possible that people were out of town or staying home in the days leading up to the holiday, hoping to protect friends and relatives at their Thanksgiving table. Shemtov resists the urge to theorize.

“Restaurant people love excuses,” he says. “Like in the summer, you’re slow and you say it’s because it’s raining. Or you’re busy and you say it’s because it’s raining so people didn’t go to the beach.”

Still, Butcher & Bee has noted a correlation between traffic and the rise and fall in COVID cases statewide. With South Carolina last Friday setting a one-day record for positive tests, the restaurant’s crew has reason to worry about the week between Christmas and New Year’s, which is typically a huge sales week: Shemtov says three of the restaurant’s five all-time best weeks fell between those holidays.

“You sort of try to make it to Thanksgiving, and then you hope that Christmas week is busy enough to get you to MLK weekend to Valentine’s Day, and then you’re in March,” he says of the restaurant business calendar. “It’s what I understand fishing to be: Sitting around, and then brief spikes of enthusiasm.”

The last week of the year could be that spike, he says. Or it could be Thanksgiving all over again.

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

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