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COVID-19 vaccinations aren't the cure-all for understaffed downtown Charleston restaurants

Rick Ohlemacher

Nola Ohlemacher, 3, watches as her father Rick Ohlemacher, 35, of Charleston receives his first of two Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine shots at Workshop on Tuesday, March 30, 2021. Ohlemacher is the chef at Butcher and Bee restaurant. Ben Chrisman/Provided

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.

 Harold's Cabin: Early birthday present

Almost without exception, Harold’s Cabin appears further down in this column. But as owner John Schumacher learned last week, you don’t always have to wait as long as you expect.

Schumacher was scheduled to receive his first vaccination shot on April 8. The date was seared into his mind because his birthday is the following day — and because he’s spent much of the last year preoccupied by how to keep people safe with COVID-19 careering through communities.

It was the date he quoted when a Harold’s Cabin regular on March 30 saw him walking his dog before sunrise and asked after Schumacher’s vaccine status.

The customer, who works in health care, asked if he’d prefer to get a shot that day.

“Of course,” Schumacher said. “Yes.”

He received his shot at 3 p.m.

“I guess the moral was it still pays to walk Homer in the neighborhood,” Schumacher said at the end of the week.

There’s still another shot left to get, but millions of South Carolinians haven’t received any shots at all. Among the adults in that group, close to one-third of them don’t plan to get vaccinated.

Those numbers go into Schumacher’s calculations when he considers reopening Harold’s Cabin, along with statistics about American dining habits. Research firm Datassential last week reported that 51 percent of Americans say they “definitely avoid” eating out.

And it’s not just the unvaccinated taking that stance. In fact, people who aren’t vaccinated and intend to stay that way have been happily dining in restaurants for months.

Lots of difficult math to figure. But at least Schumacher no longer has to count the days until his vaccine regimen begins.

Chasing Sage: Signs of spring

Walter Edward of Chasing Sage last week got a call from a customer who wanted to know when the restaurant would next switch its pop-up theme. After months of pinballing from one cuisine to another at breakneck speed, the Chasing Sage team in November settled on ramen and stayed there.

“It’s possible,” Edward told the caller. “We might.”

But the team’s focus right now is Chasing Sage, the restaurant envisioned before the pandemic obliterated its opening plans. That means instead of developing menus and promotions for one-offs, the core crew is attending to details that need to be addressed before people are seated in the dining room.

A light above the bar needs a gel so it’s not so harsh.

A few things still need to be hung in the bathroom.

And Edward just recently acquired a set of black terracotta pots to array around the kitchen window.

Putting basil, cilantro and mint in planters isn’t a big deal from a logistical standpoint, but the setup symbolizes the difference between a takeout-only operation and a dine-in experience. The idea is for customers to see chefs put the finishing touches on their food, which of course can’t happen when patrons standing outside receive their orders in a closed-up box.

The arrangement was inspired by a Barcelona restaurant where Edward worked. His station there was furnished with a “big basil bush.” But fellow chef-owner Forrest Brunton said it also references the herb wall at his house. Brunton invariably snips from his indoor garden when he’s preparing dinner for friends.

“It’s extending the hand of what we’re doing,” Edward said. “We’re not hoarding everything in the back: That spillover feels like a dinner party.”

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Or it will once everything is put in its permanent place.

Right now, the pots are positioned on a ledge that won’t be accessible once guests are let into the building.

“It would be weird if I had to reach over people,” Edward said.

The herbs will ultimately sit in a spot taken by a pair of thermal printers that spit out orders from Uber Eats and DoorDash, which are essential to the current takeout ramen operation.

The pots will be slid to the left just as soon as the printers are tucked away.

Butcher & Bee: Difficult test

Sometimes the good news is the bad news.

Months after starting talks with Whole Foods Market buyers, Butcher & Bee last week saw its breads added to the supermarket’s lineup. Both Charleston area locations are now carrying Butcher & Bee sourdough bread and baguettes.

“We thought we were going to be doing a few baguettes and a few boules,” pastry chef Jessica Olin said. “But they ended up tripling their order. It’s pretty amazing.”

Butcher & Bee is supposed to supply Whole Foods with 60 loaves on four or five days each week. Whole Foods has also requested samples of other products, which both Olin and chief of staff Tara Pate describe as a tremendous opportunity.

Except, as Olin points out, “We were pretty short-staffed to begin with.”

Now the bakeshop has more work to do, and as of last week, one fewer person with whom to do it.

Weekly employee testing revealed someone who Olin describes as “a pretty prominent figure in the bakery” was infected with COVID-19 and had to stay home. The asymptomatic contributor’s absence “really kind of set us back even more,” Olin said.

It also raised questions for management about its timetable for dealing with the coronavirus as an imminent threat. Following the company’s next vaccine clinic, 75 percent of Butcher & Bee employees will be just two weeks away from a high degree of immunity. But the latest episode suggests saturation isn’t necessarily a license to stop regular testing.

“I think the most interesting part is like, when is it going to taper off?” Pate said.

Additionally, positive tests force restaurateurs to reckon with their vaccination policies.

In South Carolina, the legislature is considering a bill which would prohibit making vaccination a condition of employment. But if employees aren’t vaccinated, disruptive quarantines may remain a fact of restaurant operations. But if employers push vaccines, they risk alienating prospective hires who are opposed to them.

Scaring off job applicants is not what any restaurant owner or manager wants to do at this point.

Customer complaints are mounting as restaurants try to offer some semblance of service with severely diminished staffs. Generous unemployment benefits, concerns about unmasked environments and hospitality workers giving up on the industry have all contributed to the manpower shortage.

“It feels like the customer is back and the team isn’t,” Pate said. “(Customers) are out and ready and haven’t made the connection that people aren’t coming back to work.”

To cope with its lack of staff, Butcher & Bee’s sister restaurant, The Daily, this past weekend "Eighty-Sixed" its regular menu, limiting its offerings to toasts, burritos and coffee. Gone were the elaborate hashes, seasonal salads and egg bowls.

As of Friday, Butcher & Bee was putting its energy into steeling for Easter Sunday brunch. But on the other side of the holiday, Pate said the restaurant’s leadership team might well make similar “creative decisions.”

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

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