NICO in Mount Pleasant

Chef/owner Nico Romo hands off plates to server Kyle Pearson at NICO French-oriented restaurant and oyster bar on Monday, Nov. 6, 2017. File/Staff

Even if the Charleston area is largely unscathed by Hurricane Dorian, local restaurant owners are still bracing for the worst in the days following the storm.

According to Nico Romo, owner of NICO in Mount Pleasant, business was relatively good during the 2018 evacuation for Hurricane Florence. But in the week after the order was lifted, customer traffic dropped off precipitously, contributing to a season he describes as “brutal” for the restaurant industry.

“If you think about a family with two kids, they have to pay for dinners; they have to buy gas,” Romo says of the evacuation costs which chip away at leisure budgets.

This is the third time in four years that an evacuation has been ordered for the Charleston area.

And it’s not just evacuees who think twice about dining out in the days following the safe passage of a storm: Locals who stay in town typically patronize restaurants and bars until the weather forces them to close up since they fear a damaging storm could spell at least a momentary end to their good-timing.

But they also stockpile food in anticipation of that situation, and often feel compelled to eat it when the hurricane threat is over, especially if they're food-and-beverage employees who haven't worked in days. 

“They’re like, ‘I’m not going to put this all in the trash’,” Romo says.

Restaurant owners are uniquely attuned to the cost of wasted food, which is always a risk with an unwanted hiatus on the horizon. Ravi Scher, chef-owner of Long Island Café, on Monday refused delivery from US Foods, the distributor which handles milk, eggs and certain other perishables for the Isle of Palms restaurant.

“Any time there’s an event, we just start paring down,” says Scher, who’s already closed his restaurant for the Dorian duration; Isle of Palms tends to empty out when there’s a hurricane warning in effect.

Because Scher orders fish on a daily basis, he isn’t concerned about seafood going bad. But Romo is promoting half-off oysters on Tuesday night in hopes of depleting the restaurant’s shellfish inventory. Last year, he “took a black marker (to the menu) and kept scratching what was not there” until all of the raw bar’s oysters were sold.

Weston Fennell of Limehouse Produce says many Charleston area restaurants try to stick to their standard produce orders because “they’re trying to fulfill their menus.” In fact, at least a few of Limehouse’s clients see additional business during the evacuation:

“Some seem to get a little busier because people want a hurrication,” Fennell says. “It really varies.”

Limehouse is aiming to stay open as long as it can, but the Charleston distributor has already announced plans to close on Thursday.

“We’re ready to go, but often can only work with ingredients we already have on hand and don’t run out of,” Edmund’s Oast owner Scott Shor says. “When we can’t get deliveries, things get challenging.”

In addition to ingredients, restaurants need people to prepare and serve them, regardless of their customer counts. Scher says putting a staff together in the immediate aftermath of an evacuation tends to compound post-storm difficulties. In previous years, “Everyone fled to different ends of the state.”

Many restaurants have insurance to cover storm-related losses, but Romo says the payout doesn’t make up for having to temporarily close a restaurant.

“You cannot add three more days to the year,” he says of the lost time. “It doesn’t work that way.”

At press time, the vast majority of downtown Charleston restaurants which serve dinner on Tuesday planned to observe their regular schedules. The Post and Courier will post updates as they become available.

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

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