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Downtown Charleston restaurant workers rue decay of F&B support in face of staffing crisis

Chasing Sage

The interior of Chasing Sage, located on Rutledge Avenue, on Friday, August 21, 2020. 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.

Chasing Sage: Opening mode

Cindy Edward’s week was summed up by a phone call.

One of the people hired by Chasing Sage before the start of the pandemic rang up the restaurant last week to ask if it was still running Everybody Loves Ramen, the latest in a succession of takeout pop-ups. Owner Edward assured the employee they could honor a noodle soup order, but the Chasing Sage team is looking toward retiring its makeshift business plan “sooner rather than later.”

She said it with gusto. But it’s not clear yet how soon is soon.

Chasing Sage’s opening date is contingent on staffing up and finalizing its financial picture, which won’t come into focus until the U.S. Small Business Administration determines when and how it will distribute restaurant grants. The agency in March told a Senate committee it was aiming to start allocating $28.5 billion relief funds by late April.

“We burned a lot of cash surviving,” owner Walter Edward said.

Here’s what the Chasing Sage team knows: The grant application should bear some resemblance to a draft they’ve secured and practiced filling out. It won’t ask for a SAM number, although there was early talk that the federal registration code would be required, so Chasing Sage obtained one. And Chasing Sage will move to the front of the SBA line because it’s owned by a woman.

Yet there are so many unknowns that Walter Edward and owner Forrest Brunton are reviewing their planned spring and summer menus in detail because they can’t even pinpoint an opening season yet, let alone a date.

For now, they all just have to wait for the SBA to activate the application link on its website.

By the afternoon of April 8, Edward had already checked it five times that day.

Harold's Cabin: Another milestone

John Schumacher’s week was summed up by a Zoom call.

Just two days before Harold’s Cabin’s fifth birthday, the West Side restaurant’s owner joined another Independent Restaurant Coalition call. There have been dozens upon dozens of calls since the organization came together in 2020, but this one stood out to Schumacher.

It was “exceptionally promising,” he said. “Two folks from the SBA were on to pass along information regarding grants and as many details as they currently have in place.”

To be clear, Schumacher at this point doesn’t know any specifics that haven’t been shared with the Chasing Sage crew. But after months of lobbying for financial support, it was heartening to hear government officials cite real numbers and outline bureaucratic procedures.

What once might have seemed dry was enthralling.

Out of a long-ago scheduling quirk, Schumacher and Harold’s Cabin share a birthday. So by the end of the week, he was conflicted over how to feel.

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“Not quite sure if I should be celebrating or melancholy that our doors are not open,” he said. Reflecting on the milestones and encouraging call, he concluded, “I guess it’s a little bit of both.”

Charleston area restaurateurs worry laid-off workers on unemployment won't want jobs back

Butcher & Bee: "Don't hate us"

Emily Tuten’s week was summed up by a phone call.

Tuten is Butcher & Bee’s human resources director, which means her work primarily involves managing payroll, overseeing policies and recruiting employees. In other words, she has an office job.

Lately, though, she’s been on the floor at Butcher & Bee, trying to help the understaffed restaurant cope with a crush of customers.

“I just run food, bus tables, reset tables, polish stuff and answer the phone,” she said. “It’s ringing off the hook.”

When she picked up in the middle of a lunch rush last week, someone with a dinner reservation was on the other end. The patron wanted to add a fourth person to their party of three.

As a food-and-beverage professional, Tuten was initially stunned that anyone would think 12:30 p.m. is a good time to call a restaurant that serves lunch. But she could imagine the hour wouldn’t register outside of the industry: Perhaps the person was on a lunch break and it was a convenient time to call.

It was far from a convenient time for Tuten, who was zipping around the dining room, trying to rescue workers from the weeds. So she told the caller that she’d have to put her on hold.

The caller was furious.

“Everyone was like, ‘Save restaurants; save restaurants’,” Tuten said of the pandemic rallying cry. “Now it’s like, to save restaurants, we actually need people to work in them. We need you to be patient. Don’t hate us for not doing the best job ever while we try to figure this out.”

By now, everyone knows that restaurants are having an epically hard time attracting job applicants. Even restaurants such as Butcher & Bee which offer competitive wages, health benefits, shift meals and free parking can’t scare up enough prospective hires — once the people who don’t respond to interview requests or show up for scheduled interviews are culled from a resume pile, there’s no paperwork left.

That “everyone” includes current employees, Tuten said: “If they’re late walking in the door, it’s like, I can’t even discipline them for being poor employees.”

Other restaurants are trying to beat the shortage by offering exceptionally high salaries, luring line cooks with hourly rates that are nearly twice the statewide average for back-of-house pay. Tuten feels like that’s a dishonest gambit since restaurants can’t afford to keep up those wages for long.

Rather than take an unsustainable tack, Butcher & Bee’s current strategy involves finding three decent sous chefs instead of six line cooks. Tuten hopes by focusing on staffing the kitchen with salaried professionals, the restaurant can sidestep the persistent problem of line cooks quitting or not showing up for work.

In the meantime, the plan is to keep scrambling. Tuten said customers have noticed.

“It seems like you’re understaffed,” one guest told Tuten last week. “Why haven’t you staffed up by now?”

All Tuten could do was shake her head.

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

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