Popular pita place perishes

Doe Cote, owner of Doe’s Pita on East Bay Street, mixes up a batch of tabbouleh Friday. Cote is closing the restaurant Sept. 25 after being open for 20 years.

The days of freshly made hummus, tabbouleh and baked kibbee at Doe's Pita in downtown Charleston are numbered.

Shop owner and operator Doe Cote will close the popular pita pocket sandwich shop at 334 East Bay St. on Sept. 25 after 20 years.

Cote said the lackluster economy forced her to make the decision about two weeks ago.

"I felt it as far back as a couple of years ago," she said. "We aren't seeing our customers as often, and our overhead is such that it's just not balancing out."

A second location at 5134 N. Rhett Ave. in North Charleston will remain open with expanded hours during the week, she said.

That restaurant, where the bakery also is located, is not open on weekends, but Cote said Saturday hours will be considered if the demand is there.

Cote said she is heartbroken by the decision, but said that it boiled down to basic economics.

"The price of fresh ingredients has gone up a lot, and I don't feel like I can raise the prices on the menu items," she added.

Cote opened the East Bay location in May 1990 after moving to Charleston in the late 1980s from Massachusetts, where she taught food nutrition in the public school system.

Her circle of friends in Massachusetts taught her the health benefits of Middle Eastern foods, which she missed when she moved South.

"I was used to Lebanese food and fresh pita bread," she said. "I realized if I wanted it I was going to have to make it."

Her passion for creating her own interesting recipes led to at-home experiments with less-than-satisfying results because she couldn't get the pita pockets to open.

She tried store-bought pitas but found the pockets impossible to make a sandwich out of. And although her homemade pitas were fresh, very few had good pockets.

Then she discovered that a 900-degree oven made perfect pita pockets and decided to move into the restaurant business. That was in early 1989.

The shopping center where the restaurant is located was gutted and under renovation, but she liked the site and signed on before it was completed.

Then along came Hurricane Hugo in September 1989, and that set everything back.

Blockbuster, the video rental chain that anchors a corner of the strip center, was under contract to open by that Christmas, so construction crews concentrated there first. They then turned to Cote's new pita restaurant site, and Doe's Pita started pocketing profits six months later.

Realizing her site was too small for the bakery and the restaurant, Cote moved the bakery to North Charleston in 1991 and opened her second restaurant at the same site as the bakery on North Rhett Avenue in 1994.

In 1996, she expanded to Mount Pleasant with a shop on Johnnie Dodds Boulevard but closed it in 2000.

"It was just too much to keep up with," Cote said.

Now 70, Cote is interested in selling the business. She will hold onto it a while longer.

"When the market turns around, I would be willing to sell it," she said. "But they would have to buy the bakery and the whole thing."

Connie Smalls, an employee at Doe's for 20 years, said she will miss all the customers, especially the regulars, whom she had grown to know on East Bay.

"I'm sad about it," Smalls said. "It was a good business and I loved it, but I have to move on."

Reach Warren Wise at 937-5524 or wwise@postandcourier.com.