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Downtown Charleston restaurant organizes vaccination clinic for food-and-beverage workers

Empty dining room

An empty dining room at Harold's Cabin on Wednesday, August 19, 2020. Because of the restaurant layout and size, it wouldn't make sense for the restaurant to open to diners under the current coronavirus restrictions. File/Lauren Petracca/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: Tipping point

After weeks of infernal vaccination aggravations, last week was “the week where everything seemed to tip in South Carolina,” Butcher & Bee owner Michael Shemtov said. The state acknowledged as much on March 26, expanding vaccine eligibility to all South Carolinians aged 16 or older, with officials noting that supply was closing in on demand.

All of a sudden, it seemed, food-and-beverage employees found open appointments when they refreshed supermarket websites or called pharmacies. Shemtov lost count of how many industry people told him they’d just been vaccinated or scheduled a first shot.

Still, with tens of thousands of Charleston County residents working in the food-and-accommodations sector, it was far too soon to declare the job done. Butcher & Bee pressed ahead with plans to offer a vaccination clinic aimed at hospitality professionals.

By March 26, more than half of the 432 shots set aside for the event at Workshop were spoken for. Shemtov anticipated all of them would be claimed by the weekend.

To fill the available slots, Shemtov told fellow owners with restaurants in the same neighborhood as Butcher & Bee about the opportunity. He refrained from putting an announcement on social media or sending out an email blast, even though he was initially concerned about signing up enough vaccine-seekers to make the session worthwhile.

“It’s like planning a party,” he said, adding that he didn’t want to be in the position of turning registrants away.

Of course, depending on how the March 30 clinic goes, he might instead be able to invite them back. Even though Shemtov’s original idea was to just secure vaccines for his own employees, he said he’s now open to making an industry-specific vaccination clinic a recurring event.

Chief of staff Tara Pate, who was closely involved in planning the session, called it the most ambitious project that the company has attempted since the start of the pandemic.

Harold's Cabin: Helping others

Harold’s Cabin owner John Schumacher in the past week hasn’t given much thought to his West Side restaurant, which remains closed. He’s too caught up in the fates of other restaurants.

The Independent Restaurant Coalition in March was profiled by The Washington Post and The New York Times, both of which credited the grassroots group with lobbying the Restaurant Revitalization Fund into existence. Schumacher has been an active member of the organization from its start.

Yet securing funding for restaurants in financial trouble wasn’t the ultimate goal, Schumacher said. He and his fellow Independent Restaurant Coalition members want to make sure the money ends up in restaurateurs’ hands.

And so the Zoom calls continue.

“To date, the IRC has hosted 11 Restaurant Round Tables and has at least five more on tap,” he said of efforts to spread the word about the relief program and how it operates.

He’s looking forward to the group hosting two such seminars every week.

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Chasing Sage: Now hiring

There is no quicker way to depress a restaurant owner right now than to bring up the current staffing situation.

Charleston area restaurant owners and managers before the pandemic were already using words like “emergency” and “catastrophe” to describe the challenges they faced in hiring. They acknowledged that hospitality work was a tough sell: The stress factors were high, the wages were relatively low and the hours were awful.

Then the government started paying line cooks, servers and other laid-off restaurant employees more each week than they could earn by going to work, where they risked facing entitled customers in the dining room and contagion conditions in the kitchen.

While vaccinations have helped curb fears of infection, local restaurateurs say the short-staffing problem is worse than it’s ever been.

Even restaurants offering almost double minimum wage are struggling to fill hourly positions. Butcher & Bee’s Emily Tuten said she’s received 18 applications for a line cook opening she first advertised on Feb. 17 (That’s not good.)

When Tuten recently went to a job site to post another ad, an alert pinned to the homepage warned her that stimulus checks were on their way to Americans’ bank accounts, so employers ought to brace for crickets.

For Chasing Sage, though, there’s nothing dispiriting about the hiring process. The fact that the restaurant is filling out its staff means it’s one small step closer to opening.

Last week, the Chasing Sage team reviewed the text of the ad they circulated in advance of their planned 2020 opening, readying to share it again. (While many of the people hired prior to the pandemic are still planning to work for Chasing Sage, others have since moved out of state.)

They didn’t have to make many changes.

“We still want Chasing Sage to be the same thing we wanted it to be a year ago,” owner Walter Edward explained. “I think our personality and attitude of inclusion will be appreciated as much as ever: Maybe even more appreciated.”

According to owner Forrest Brunton, the ad was worded to convey that “we’re good people to work for. We’ve always had a commitment to not to be ‘my way or the highway.’ ”

The ad refers to the leadership crew as “total food nerds” who “treat people respectfully,” concluding, “If we seem like people you’d grab a beer with, smash the reply button.”

In addition to a healthy workplace culture, Brunton said Chasing Sage is offering a living wage. He believes both will help bring in the right candidates.

If the restaurant runs into any trouble, owner Cindy Edward unfortunately won’t be able to console herself with her favorite orange wine.

Chasing Sage last week took another step toward opening by checking on the availability of the bottles chosen for its 2020 list. The Portuguese wine which Edward envisioned handselling to guests is off the table: Its importer has gone out of business.

General manager Max Clarke is certain he can find a suitable replacement.

After all, in contemporary hospitality, skin-contact wine is an easier catch than a server’s assistant willing to work weekends.

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

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