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Charleston diners returning to downtown restaurant in droves as more Americans get vaccine

Butcher & Bee

Sydney Hedge (left) and Julia Piscioniere carry food to diners during dinner at Butcher & Bee on Saturday, Jan. 16, 2021, in Charleston. File/Gavin McIntyre/Staff

The Post and Courier Food section since August has been checking in weekly with four downtown Charleston restaurants coping with the coronavirus pandemic and recovering from restrictions designed to contain it. The following three restaurants are still finding their way back to normalcy. For previous installments of the series, as well as more information about the featured restaurants and their chosen strategies for success, click here.

Butcher & Bee: Bustling crowds

If it were just vaccinated people descending upon Butcher & Bee, the restaurant would presumably be dominated by eaters aged 65 or older. Butcher & Bee doesn’t take a census, but that doesn’t look to be the case.

Yet the availability of vaccinations appears to have sparked a new enthusiasm for dining out.

“My thesis is once grandma and mom get vaccinated, you feel comfortable going out knowing you’re not going to create the worst outcome for your family,” owner Michael Shemtov said.

Whatever the reason, chief of staff Tara Pate described the scene at Butcher & Bee last week as “bustling.”

“It’s hard to tell if people are getting vaccinated in other states and feel comfortable, or if it’s just spring,” Pate said. “But there’s some sort of vote of confidence.”

According to Shemtov, customer traffic typically picks up on March 1. This year, though, the spike occurred a full two weeks before the pattern would predict. Butcher & Bee last week notched 80 percent of the sales it recorded at the same time last year despite using fewer than 80 percent of its seats.

Shemtov knows that scientists warn COVID-19 complacency could set back the nation’s progress. But at least at this point, guests aren’t behaving as though the disease doesn’t exist. They’re wearing masks as requested and respecting the protocols that Butcher & Bee has in place.

(Behind the scenes, those protocols still include weekly employee testing. “We didn’t look around and say ‘We should change our ways,’ ” Pate said.)

Still, customers are signaling they doubt they’ll have to deal with COVID-19 forever. People on the other end of Butcher & Bee’s phone line are asking to buy out the restaurant in October for a wedding or bring in a bachelorette party over the summer, calculating they’ll be vaccinated and ready to celebrate.

During the final weeks of February, requests for event bookings shot up 300 percent.

Harold's Cabin: Out of the box

Just because it’s no longer serving Salty Racoon cocktails and hushpuppies with pepper jam doesn’t mean Harold’s Cabin can’t feed its neighbors. The still-closed West Side restaurant is in the process of putting in a Blessing Box.

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Unmanned food pantries, generally about the size of a pay phone, date back decades. But the practice took hold in the Lowcountry in the late 2010s with Samaritans installing the cabinets instead of or alongside Little Free Libraries stocked with books. Most Blessing Boxes are designed to hold nonperishables such as toothpaste and cans of beans

Harold’s Cabin already had a self-serve library, but owner John Schumacher is just now converting a compact refrigerator into a Blessing Box. A sign on its door instructs people to “leave what you can; take what you need.”

“I recently heard that one in four U.S. kids live in a food insecure household, up from one in five,” Schumacher said, citing statistics included in a recent Feeding America report. “Something has to give.”

Chasing Sage: The president, please

Last Wednesday, Chasing Sage owner Cindy Edward had a call with the White House.

She wasn’t the only one on the call. She was joined by almost 300 other restaurant and bar workers and owners, including Schumacher, for the Independent Restaurant Coalition’s conversation with the Biden administration’s Office of Public Engagement.

“We got to hear more in detail what they’re presenting” to help an industry that has 110,000 fewer restaurants and 2.4 million fewer employees than it did prior to the pandemic, Edward said.

Edward and her team have been monitoring the rescue efforts closely since Chasing Sage’s status as a circa 2020 restaurant makes it more vulnerable than most because it didn’t have a clientele going into the pandemic and didn’t receive federal assistance.

Even though Edward didn’t talk on the call, she said she still felt heard.

“The senior adviser to Biden was like ‘We want this to pass. What do you need from us?’ ” Edward said. “I was like ‘This is nice. This feels good.’ ”

Halfway through the call, Edward gave one of her AirPods to general manager Max Clarke so he could listen in.

Clarke said “they were pretty clear that they feel confident” about the $25 billion restaurant stabilization fund in the White House’s proposed $1.9 billion stimulus package.

So confident, in fact, that Edward and Clarke got off the call feeling pretty confident, too.

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

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