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Testing, testing: Downtown Charleston restaurant owners move cautiously into the new year

Harold's Cabin

A person walks by Harold's Cabin in Charleston on Tuesday, August 18, 2020. File/Lauren Petracca/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.

Chasing Sage: Ramen, ramen everywhere

When Chasing Sage, structured since last summer as a series of rotating pop-ups, made its very first rotation from Korean to French food, its owners learned that plenty of Charlestonians already had favorite sources of steak frites. When they turned to Thai, they found they had company in the curry sector.

But ramen? As soon as Chasing Sage switched to a noodle soup menu its owners realized local desire for the dish was even more profound than they suspected. They concluded there was a need for ramen.

They didn’t know how right they were.

Since Chasing Sage in late December announced plans to quit changing menus and stick with ramen for the foreseeable future, an intermittent ramen pop-up, time-limited ramen pop-up and standing ramen pop-up have all sprung up around Charleston.

During the first week of January, for instance, a single-minded slurper could have sampled Setrini Sison’s ramen at Spanglish on Monday, Julian Lippe’s ramen at Jackrabbit Filly on Wednesday, and Joe and Kevin Nierstedt’s ramen at The Daily on Thursday. The chef-owners of KinFolk on Kiawah Island plan to bring their Katsubo project to the downtown café every Wednesday and Thursday night.

“All of a sudden, we’re not the only ones doing ramen,” Chasing Sage general manager Maxfield Clarke says.

They swear they don’t mind the competition. After all, it means they read the market correctly. And each ramen order is slightly more gratifying when the Chasing Sage team can be sure the customer is turning to them in admiration, not desperation.

“I kind of love it,” owner Walter Edward says. “I feel somewhat vindicated.”

Another advantage of having more ramen in town is it reduces the pressure to keep serving ramen forever. Although the Chasing Sage team has paused on ramen, they haven’t ruled out making more conceptual turnabouts before it’s safe to open their restaurant.

But at that point, owner Forrest Brunton says, he’ll need somewhere to eat ramen.

Vintage Lounge: Counting blessings

It’s no accident that the most cliched saying about challenges and resilience involves a kitchen.

Food-and-beverage professionals have always prided themselves on their ability to work in conditions that would horrify office job holders. Cooks don’t clock out when they draw their own blood, bar backs don’t take a break after hauling 80 pounds of ice up from the basement and servers don’t sit down for a second after a customer has mercilessly made fun of their weight.

So it’s perhaps not surprising that Nathan Wheeler of Vintage Lounge finished up a pandemic year by saying the experience “remind(ed) me of why I fell in love with the food-and-beverage business.”

He was referring specifically to how his team handled 2020's ups and downs, but thriving on crisis is a longstanding restaurant tradition.

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Fortunately for Vintage Lounge, Wheeler reports 2020 ended on an up.

“The holiday season was strong,” he says. “Different from previous years, for sure, but it leaves us optimistic.”

Butcher & Bee: Bridge to vaccination

Even before COVID-19 cases were soaring in South Carolina, reaching a daily record of 4,986 cases Friday, Butcher & Bee operated on the principle that the virus was under its roof.

With the rate of infections so high, owner Michael Shemtov felt it was safer to assume that employees or customers were asymptomatic and adopt standard procedures accordingly. But even with protective policies in place, the restaurant still found itself scrambling to cover shifts and deal with fallout whenever a worker tested positive.

Shemtov knew the situation would be more stable if workers were tested on a weekly basis. But he also knew that kind of program would be costly for the business and inconvenient for employees. He periodically asked the company’s human resources director to explore options, but didn’t push the suggestion much beyond that.

Recently, though, Shemtov says, “I kind of flipped the switch and said, ‘We have to figure out how to do this.’ ”

Around the same time, Edmund’s Oast owner Scott Shor was also becoming increasingly persuaded of the urgent need for regular testing of hospitality workers. He called Shemtov to discuss the possibility of sponsoring a Medical University of South Carolina testing station in their shared parking lot at Half Mile North.

Last week, all 76 employees at Butcher & Bee, The Daily and Workshop were required to get tested between Tuesday afternoon and Thursday morning, and send a screenshot of their results to management. (The time frame covers the 10 a.m.-2 p.m. free testing session at Half Mile North but allows workers to get tested at another time or place.)

Employees who don’t comply with the request won’t lose their jobs, but they’ll be taken off the schedule the following week, human resources director Emily Tuten says.

A few employees quit over the new mandate, including one person at Butcher & Bee.

“If you don’t go to the doctor, you’re kind of wary,” Tuten says. “This feels very much like something you’re not going to be doing.”

While Shemtov has been getting tested weekly since the summer, he appreciates the program isn’t wholly pleasant. He anticipates it will cost $20,000 if the restaurant has to maintain it throughout 2021, and doesn’t think it will result in any additional revenue: He believes Butcher & Bee is already on most diners’ lists of restaurants practicing COVID-19 safety, so doubts weekly testing will win over new customers.

“This to me is a bridge to vaccination,” Shemtov says. “Nobody is talking about flattening the curve and keeping cases down anymore, but while we wait on vaccine capacity to be ramped up, that’s what this is.”

Harold's Cabin: Stepping up

With Harold’s Cabin still closed, owner John Schumacher has been able to maintain the highest levels of COVID-19 protocol. He hasn’t had to worry about contracting the virus at work or deal with the frustrations of getting tested for it.

But he was in contact with someone who last Tuesday tested positive, so on Wednesday Schumacher went for his first COVID-19 test. He was one of 237 people who got his nose swabbed in the Edmund’s Oast parking lot.

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

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