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: Shots come first
Just before noon March 8, six vehicles slammed together in the westbound lanes of Interstate 26.
A deadly collision in Dorchester County wouldn’t normally have much bearing on the safety of restaurant operations in downtown Charleston. But the crash occurred at Mile Marker 187 mere minutes before Chasing Sage General Manager Max Clarke was set to reach it while traveling to his first vaccination appointment.
With traffic at a standstill, Clarke watched his chances of getting to Dillon for his 1:45 p.m. shot fade “from slim to none.” He went back to doing what so many food-and-beverage workers spent last week doing: pulling up the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control’s online vaccine locator and scrolling for open appointments.
At first, there was nothing.
Then again, there was nothing.
And finally, an appointment in St. Matthews popped up. Clarke put aside his fantasies of combining his search for COVID-19 immunity with a search for memorable barbecue. (Editor’s note: Shuler’s Bar-B-Que is just down the road, but Dillon is fried chicken territory. KJ’s Market IGA is revered for its rendition.) He headed to the DHEC office in St. Matthews for his first dose of the Moderna vaccine.
The following day, Clarke’s girlfriend joined Chasing Sage owners Walter and Cindy Edward on a road trip to a drive-thru vaccination clinic in Edgefield. The Edwards got back to the restaurant just in time for dinner service.
“One thing we all talked about was we’re going to figure out how to get them as soon as we can,” Cindy Edward said of conversations leading up to the first day of vaccine eligibility for hospitality workers. They were ready to post a “Gone Vaccinating” sign on their restaurant’s door, if necessary; getting the team fully vaccinated was their top priority.
Owner Forrest Brunton has an appointment for his first shot this week.
Butcher & Bee: Making housecalls
As the Chasing Sage crew recognizes, not everyone in the food-and-beverage industry can travel for hours on a day dictated by DHEC’s vaccine locator. Butcher & Bee’s employees were immediately stymied by the system, which rarely displayed any open appointments in the Charleston area when they checked it.
On the rare instance when an appointment was available, chief of staff Tara Pate said it didn’t pan out. Two employees were able to book shots at a Gaillard Center clinic run by Harris Teeter, but then the grocery cancelled the event.
“Last week we were talking about what a relief it was to tell everyone, ‘It’s our turn,' ” owner Michael Shemtov said. “One week later, we’ve seen people running into walls.”
A manager at Butcher & Bee told Shemtov that sign-ups were going “terribly.” A manager at The Daily told him he couldn’t find an appointment closer than Myrtle Beach.
“I spent more time (on the site) myself and kept hitting dead ends,” Shemtov said. “I felt like if people are having issues, what if we can kind of hack this?”
Concerned that employees wouldn’t feel any urgency to find the vaccine if their coworkers weren’t getting vaccinated either, Shemtov wondered if he could set up an at-work vaccination clinic. He got in touch with a customer who runs a local urgent care practice to see if he could source single-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccines for his employees.
He also asked his business neighbor, Scott Shor of Edmund’s Oast, if he’d like to partner on the project.
Shor suggested such an event should be open to the community, much as the weekly COVID-19 testing in their shared parking lot is aimed at the hospitality industry but available to anyone. But Shemtov wasn’t persuaded. He doesn’t like the idea of having to verify and enforce the state’s eligibility criteria, which doesn’t seem to him like a restaurant’s role.
Still, he’s aware of the issues associated with securing vaccinations for a select group of people.
“If we can make this happen, are people going to be upset or are people going to feel better about coming to eat here?” he asked, recalling his reaction last month when a physical therapist’s office emailed him a picture showing its team members happily vaccinated.
“I wrote them back and I was like, ‘Good for you, but I think this is a (thoughtless) move to throw it in our face right now,' ” he said. “This sort of reeks of privilege and access.”
In other words, Butcher & Bee may not make a big deal of it when its staff is fully vaccinated. At least at this point, Shemtov doesn’t foresee his restaurant Instagramming a picture of employees’ bandaged arms or vaccination cards. But knowing that people may not look kindly on the restaurant making special arrangements doesn’t seem like a good enough reason to put off protecting workers, Shemtov said.
“There shouldn’t be any shame,” he said.
Returning to the phrase he had planned to make his refrain last week, he added, “We’re now eligible.”
Harold's Cabin: Lights up
Since Harold’s Cabin has been closed to the public for one year, owner John Schumacher doesn’t have to help manage the details of his employees’ vaccinations. But his mother last week got her second shot — another victory for a week that brought sunshine of both the real and metaphorical kind.
For Schumacher, the latter came in the form of the Restaurant Revitalization fund, a section of the stimulus package based on the Restaurants Act. The Independent Restaurant Coalition, of which Schumacher is an active member, had lobbied hard for the act’s passage.
“The road remains long, and there is still plenty left to do before assistance can be accessed, but the feeling of camaraderie and gratitude is running deep,” he said.
Perhaps more notably, at least from the perspective of the restaurant’s Westside neighborhood, is the lights were back on at Harold’s Cabin for a short while recently. The restaurant remains closed, but a television production crew borrowed it for a shoot.
"The feeling of having a dozen like-minded folks in the Cabin was special," Schumacher said. "Undoubtedly, the most number of people occupying the building in a year: The warmth of the lights and smiles was something I will remember for quite some time."
To Schumacher, the scene was surreal.
To Harold’s Cabin’s patrons, it may have looked like practice.