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Distressed downtown Charleston restaurants get a lift from soft shell crabs and red rice

Soft shell crab shedder tank

Michael Turner monitors locally caught blue crabs during the molting season for the Dorchester Road-based Marvin Seafood's soft shell crab business at the Wando Dock on Shem Creek on Friday, March 22, 2019. File/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.

Harold's Cabin: Hurry up and wait

What nobody tells you at the start of a global pandemic is how much patience an urgent health crisis requires.

People around the world had to wait for scientists to figure out COVID-19 and devise vaccines to fight it. Then they had to wait for government officials to arrange for vaccine distribution. Finally, once they’d received their shots, they had to wait weeks for immunity to kick in.

And then there are the waiting games that not everybody plays. Parents waited anxiously for the return of in-person school. Hollywood stars waited for the governor of California to greenlight movie production.

“We’re waiting at the SBA depot,” Harold’s Cabin owner John Schumacher said of restaurant owners hoping to receive federal grants; the Small Business Administration at press time hadn’t yet revealed the funding application or program start date.

Until the cash train pulls into the station, Schumacher can’t make a decision about reopening his Westside restaurant.

Statistics released last week by research firm Datassential show Schumacher is in a somewhat unique position. While tens of thousands of restaurant operators are looking forward to applying for government aid, only 2 percent percent of restaurants across the country are classified as “temporarily closed,” down from nearly 50 percent of restaurants in April 2020.

Of the restaurants in business at the start of the pandemic, 10.7 percent have closed permanently, or about twice the normal annual average.

Datassential reports that 10.7 percent figure is roughly consistent across states, regardless of COVID-19 related restrictions, popularity densities and cuisine types. (One notable exception was self-service restaurants; 23 percent of buffets didn’t make it through the pandemic.) Fine dining didn’t fare any worse than fast casual.

“It’s been nowhere near as crazy as has been reported,” Datassential’s Jack Li said in an online presentation of the findings. “I would have thought we’d have much more disappear.”

Schumacher and his fellow Independent Restaurant Coalition members believe they played a part in averting disaster by securing federal aid for their industry. Now they just have to wait for it.

Butcher & Bee: Nervous chapter

After weeks of watching job openings fester without applicants showing interest in them, Butcher & Bee last week made two important hires, filling out its three-person sous chef team.

But chief of staff Tara Pate said keeping up morale isn’t just a matter of manpower. The restaurant has started planning its first ticketed group dinner since returning to service. Food writer KJ Kearney, the founder of Red Rice Day and Black Food Fridays, in late May will lead a red rice program with Anson Mills’ support.

“That feels educational,” Pate said. “It doesn’t feel just like operating a restaurant in times of COVID. It feels our team is learning and growing.”

Still, COVID-19 considerations remain, especially since Charleston City Council last week dialed back its mask ordinance by eliminating fines for violations. Pate trusts that people who sign up for a Butcher & Bee event will appreciate the “ethos” in place, but she’s also grappling with what to do if they brush off safety protocols.

“Aside from having a bouncer at the door, how do we make sure that we keep that integrity?” she said. “Doing the kind of event that the Bee is known for feels exciting, but it just opens up this kind of nervous chapter.”

One of the issues that Butcher & Bee is still trying to resolve involves seating at the outdoor dinner.

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Prior to the pandemic, strangers would have been grouped together in the name of community. This time, guests will be prompted to reserve an entire table, so people of different vaccination statuses aren’t forced to mingle.

“It’s a little bit weird because what if you’re a single person and want to come?” Pate said. “We want it to feel inclusive.”

At this point, though, Pate isn’t complaining about a problem that doesn’t turn on someone showing up for a job interview.

Chasing Sage: Seasonal obsession

Blue crabs with shells to molt are ferociously hard workers. Anyone who’s seen the waterlogged peelers waddle about a shedding tank, aching for their shells to bust, can attest to how mightily they labor to shake free of their exoskeletons.

But that’s not all that blue crabs have to do this April. Posthumously, they also have to prop up the struggling Charleston area restaurant industry.

“Soft shells have been a big business helper,” said Walter Edward, owner of Chasing Sage, which last week replaced Sushi Saturday at its ramen pop-up with Softie Saturday.

The promotion was so successful that the Chasing Sage team now plans to offer fried softshell sandwiches so long as just-molted crabs are available (and perhaps a few days longer, if they decide to chase the harvest up the coast.)

“I love them, and I get it,” Edward said of the local affection for the seasonal delicacy. Yet the intensity of the frenzy surprises him every year, perhaps because the craze for eating as many restaurant softshell preparations as possible picks up new adherents every time the crabs appear.

One patron last week showed general manager Max Clarke pictures of the nine softshell dishes he’d sampled thus far.

“People are really digging this,” owner Forrest Brunton said.

According to owner Cindy Edward, who sparked a lighthearted controversy on the restaurant’s Instagram account by referring to the special as a “sammie,” people who have never ordered takeout from Chasing Sage are calling to make sure they can get a softie.

While the Chasing Sage team might not join the race to try crabs at every sports bar and food truck carving softshell-shaped niches into their menus, they deeply appreciate the desire to seek out what’s only available right now.

Clarke is looking for loquats, required for one of the cocktails he designed for Chasing Sage. He sees them on trees in backyards that don’t belong to him, “but nobody seems to sell them.”

Of course, when Stephanie Barna of Charleston City Paper and Harry Root of Grassroots Wine in 2013 went on their inaugural soft shell crab crawl, their comprehensive list of downtown Charleston softie sources numbered just 14 restaurants — and only five of them had advertised soft shell availability.

Perhaps in 2029 Charleston eaters will be showing off photos of round yellow fruits.

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

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