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Food-and-beverage staff shortage extends past restaurants, snarling pickups and deliveries

Chasing Sage

Cindy Edward gathers together a takeout order during dinner at Chasing Sage on Saturday, Jan. 16, 2021, in Charleston. File/Gavin McIntyre/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: Crossing the bridge

Butcher & Bee has just about passed the test.

While the restaurant hasn’t dropped its weekly COVID-19 testing requirement for employees, it’s starting to phase out the program for workers who provide proof of full vaccination. At this point, chief of staff Tara Pate said roughly 80 percent of employees should be able to satisfy that condition.

Owner Michael Shemtov said “it feels a little silly” to keep up the testing pace established when vaccines statewide were reserved for health care workers and elderly South Carolinians.

Shemtov in January collaborated with Scott Shor of Edmund’s Oast to sponsor a Medical University of South Carolina testing station in their shared Half Mile North parking lot. He then referred to the weekly event as a “bridge to vaccination,” saying his team hoped it would reduce workplace spread and cut down on the agita around reported cases.

Since its start, the weekly testing requirement has turned up several cases that might not have been located otherwise.

But Pate said it was costly to reimburse workers for their time spent getting tested, whether in the parking lot or at another facility. The restaurant’s payroll cost for the initiative stands at about $7,500. She planned this week to outline the “off-ramping” process for eligible employees.

Rescinding the requirement rates as a success, Shemtov said, since it recognizes the protections now available to all adults and consequent improvements in the area’s COVID-19 case counts.

Those factors haven’t gone unnoticed by patrons.

“The next few months seem very promising,” he said. “Business is back to pre-pandemic levels.”

Some weeks, he added, it’s even better.

Harold's Cabin: Out of the box

With restaurant traffic on a strong upswing, there are presumably fewer meals being cooked at home in the Charleston area.

Harold’s Cabin owner John Schumacher last week had an opportunity to reflect on the sometimes blurry boundary between the two.

Schumacher has been making frequent trips to his hometown of Aiken to look after his mother. On a recent visit, he met up with a childhood friend and neighbor who used to invite Schumacher for supper. Schumacher never forgot the pizza that his friends’ parents served, which had the twin advantages of being both delicious and square.

“Come to find out it was the Chef Boyardee box mix,” Schumacher said.

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Still, Schumacher isn’t dismissing or downgrading the “fond food memory,” even if it was built on a bed of instant crust. When it comes to memorable meals, feelings often surpass flavor, which might be a lesson for restaurant owners to keep in mind as they recreate their restaurants.

As for Harold’s Cabin next iteration, it’s still up in the air.

“Not much new on this end,” said Schumacher, who continues to wait for the Small Business Administration to begin accepting applications for federal restaurant grants.

Chasing Sage: Driven to frustration

Even though Chasing Sage hasn’t yet opened its dining room, the restaurant isn’t immune to the employee shortage which has seized the Charleston area’s food-and-beverage sector.

Chasing Sage’s owners say they’re steadily rebuilding their staff roster, scheduling interviews and confirming arrangements with at least one worker whose status was previously uncertain. But they’ve noticed that more business owners, struggling to hire drivers, are themselves showing up at the restaurant with bread and other scheduled deliveries.

It’s obvious to the Chasing Sage team that Uber Eats and DoorDash are running low on drivers, too.

“This poor lady ordered ramen and it was a total debacle,” general manager Max Clarke said of one customer’s protracted experience last week.

According to Clarke, the requested bowl of noodle soup sat for so long that Chasing Sage remade it, assuming a DoorDash driver would soon arrive to claim it.

An hour after the customer placed her order, there still weren’t any drivers in the vicinity who wanted to tote a serving of ramen from Cannonborough-Elliottborough to North Charleston.

When she called the restaurant around that time for an update, Clarke apologized and assured her the kitchen would remake the ramen again.

“We just kept making it,” owner Cindy Edward said of the aggravating evening.

Two hours later, the customer called back.

“I’ll just come get it,” she said.

By the time she arrived, closing time had come and gone, but the restaurant supplied her with a fresh serving of ramen and a few make-it-right doughnuts.

Clarke and Edward said the customer was exceptionally appreciative: She even called back the following day so she could rave to the manager about “the handsome young blonde man,” not realizing Clarke was both manager and young man.

For a customer to show kindness in the face of a staffing crunch was “cool,” Edward said.

Plus, DoorDash reimbursed the restaurant for all of the wasted ramen.

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

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