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Myrtle Beach seafood buffet fans won't let coronavirus interfere with their crab leg feast

Crab legs on buffet table (copy)

Legs are served with melted butter, melted margarine and spiced melted margarine. File/Hanna Raskin/Staff

In an inadvertent description of a public health official’s worst nightmare, promotional material for one of the Grand Strand’s most popular crab leg buffets promises prospective customers that “people have been drooling over our succulent, fried and broiled seafood dishes.”

While that’s not literally the situation, buffets are still widely recognized as one of the highest-risk dining formats. In a recent New York Times overview of the coronavirus, a Cornell University professor of virology reassured readers that it’s generally safe to eat where people are sick with COVID-19, but added the caveat that “if it’s a high-traffic buffet, risks cannot be ruled out.”

High-traffic buffets are the lifeblood of the Myrtle Beach area, with dozens of restaurants offering items such as fried seafood, chicken lo mein and scrambled eggs in a help-yourself setting. Yet buffet owners report they haven’t seen any decline in business in the wake of the coronavirus, in part, because they already take strict precautions to reduce the chance of disease transmission in their restaurants.

“We bought some of the spray and we have wipes, but we haven’t put them out yet because no one is asking,” Surroy Hemingway, general manager of Bennett’s Calabash Seafood, said in an interview conducted before the first presumptive cases of coronavirus in South Carolina were reported Friday night.

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Restaurants that aren’t typically forced to confront the threat of norovirus have instituted additional safety measures to ward off coronavirus contagion. For example, Starbucks has barred customers from using their own coffee mugs and McDonald’s has started sanitizing its menu touchscreens more frequently.

By contrast, Donna Rebello, marketing manager for The Original Benjamin’s Calabash Seafood, says the 1,000-seat Myrtle Beach restaurant already had hand sanitizer stations set up. She adds that employees wear gloves as a matter of course, which isn’t necessarily the case in non-buffet restaurants.

“We don’t even put out dishes without gloves on,” she says.

According to Rebello, coronavirus hasn’t come up in conversations with patrons; the crowds would apparently rather focus on stuffed flounder, coconut shrimp and banana pudding.

“We’re business as usual,” she says. “We’re blessed with very sweet customers.”

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

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