This story is part of a weekly series chronicling downtown Charleston restaurants coping with the coronavirus pandemic and recovering from restrictions designed to contain it. To read more about the series, click here.
Among the early accolades bestowed on Harold’s Cabin, which in 2016 opened at the corner of President and Congress streets, was the title “Coziest Restaurant in South Carolina.” Food & Wine cooed over the tiny restaurant’s snug spaces and woodsy bar sized for a humble hunting lodge, predicting pictures of the bi-level dining room would break Pinterest.
But there’s nothing like a global pandemic to transform an asset into a liability. The magazine might as well have slapped a “COVID Clubhouse” sticker on the restaurant, considering most people’s eagerness to snuggle up to strangers right now.
“Six feet distance doesn’t work,” co-owner John Schumacher says. “I’ve walked the restaurant so many times.”
Even though Harold’s Cabin hasn’t served food since March 28, when an employee’s near-brush with the coronavirus drove the restaurant out of the to-go business — which for Harold’s amounted to cleaning out the cooler by selling vegetable soup and BLTs — Schumacher still comes to work five days a week.
Sometimes he’s on Zoom calls with fellow members of the Independent Restaurant Coalition, strategizing ways to rescue the industry. Sometimes he just looks out the window. And sometimes he stalks the state’s coziest restaurant, puzzling out where he could place tables to preserve social distance.
All of the ideal configurations are blocked by brick columns, tight corners and permanent nooks. Best case, he could set up five tables. He could maybe stretch it to 10 if he put two tables on the sidewalk and three on the roof.
It’s still not nearly enough.
“A restaurant is lucky to make 10 cents on the dollar, and now you need to make 50 cents,” Schumacher says. “The plan was to try to reopen, but it makes no business sense for our size.”
Much of the talk in hospitality circles about what restaurants will look like when the pandemic is in the past is philosophical: Industry leaders use words like “equity” and “sustainability” when outlining their visions. But in a literal sense, restaurants won’t look like Harold’s Cabin.
“It’s heartbreaking,” says Medical University of South Carolina physician Melvin Brown, who lives kitty-corner to Harold’s. He was one of eight neighborhood residents who most nights claimed nearly every stool at the 10-person bar. “I grew up in the era of 'Cheers,' when everyone wanted to own a bar like that. That’s what it was.”
The two seats which didn’t belong to regulars were usually occupied by tourists or newcomers lucky enough to snag them. Several of them have stayed in touch with Schumacher since their visits.
“They say they felt at home here,” he says. “People think of a cabin and they think of a comfortable place with best friends and family.”
Cabin owners know cabins also demand upkeep. Despite being closed to the public for five months, Harold’s has racked up charges for water and electricity. Other expenses have included termite abatement and insurance policies: “The bills don’t stop,” Schumacher says.
Yet Schumacher has zero regrets about closing and staying closed.
“There’s not one modicum of doubt that we did the right thing,” he says. “No second thoughts. You know the (positive test) numbers. It’s the safest thing to do for the community.”
As for how long Harold’s will linger in the limbo between restarting operations and vacating the building, Schumacher calls it the million-dollar question. No single public health development or financial shift is likely to be the deciding factor.
“A vaccine certainly is part of it, but lots of folks aren’t comfortable with a vaccine,” he says. “It’s just not the same if people don’t want to come inside and spend money. The whole landscape of Charleston is going to change.”
From Brown’s vantage point across the street, the scene has already changed. Instead of a beckoning bar glowing with warm lights and tipsy conversation, he sees a building so quiet that one passerby recently junked a bike in front of it. (Schumacher fixed it up — one of six he’s fixed during the pandemic.)
“A lot of us who don’t know the business say, ‘Other guys are opening. Why aren’t you opening?’ ” Brown admits. But as a doctor, he can’t fault Schumacher’s stance on safety.
Over the summer, Brown invited three other regulars to his backyard for bourbon and steak.
“I hadn’t seen those guys in three solid months,” he says.
Before the pandemic, he reckons he wouldn’t have gone more than one or two nights without seeing them. More accurately, he wouldn’t have gone more than one or two nights without cozying alongside them at Harold’s Cabin’s.
To be continued.