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With vaccines scant, downtown Charleston restaurant owners can't predict normalcy's return

Chasing Sage

Walter Edward prepares noodles for a customer's 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: Free-for-all

From the start of the pandemic, restaurant owners have faced several obstacles specific to their industry, chief among them that people can’t dine properly without removing their masks.

Lately, though, restaurateurs have been dealing with a problem experienced by most South Carolinians: Vaccine appointments aren’t easy to come by.

Three weeks ago, Butcher & Bee’s management team was elated to tell employees that they were eligible for COVID-19 vaccinations.

Two weeks ago, frustrated by persistent sign-up difficulties, owner Michael Shemtov shifted his enthusiasm to an envisioned workplace clinic. Since employees couldn’t find shots, he was looking forward to bringing the shots to them.

By last week, he was on the cusp of giving up on that plan.

Once the physician he first consulted about the program learned he couldn’t secure the needed vaccines, Shemtov called more doctors, but none of them had a way to put aside shots for his staff. He talked to the city’s director of emergency management, but he couldn’t point Shemtov to a vaccine stockpile either.

Shemtov on March 19 finally connected with a health care outfit which offered to supply hundreds of shots, so long as the event was open to all hospitality workers.

“I have somehow fallen backward,” said Shemtov, who hadn’t wanted to become the local food-and-beverage community’s point person for securing vaccines. Until his human resources director alerted him to the privacy violations inherent in the approach, he’d planned to camp out at a computer with his employees’ registration information and just make an appointment for each of them.

He continued, “I wanted to do something for 50 people who work for us and not lean on relationships to get 300 people signed up. But it’s become part of my role.”

If the clinic comes together, it’s likely to occur in early April.

Harold's Cabin: On the books

“Like many folks these days, I’m playing the vaccine lottery,” Harold’s Cabin owner John Schumacher said.

Schumacher was able to schedule his first shot at a grocery store, but the system crashed before he could set up the subsequent dose, forcing him to restart the search. He’s now booked to complete his vaccination two-step on April 8.

Yet if Harold’s Cabin is to reopen, vaccines will need to be more readily available.

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“About 9 percent of South Carolinians have been fully vaccinated,” he said March 19. “It’s a long way to go.”

Additionally, Schumacher still needs reassurance that people will feel comfortable in the Cabin before he’s willing to commit to bringing it back to business. He’s also waiting to learn how big of a check the restaurant might expect from the relief fund in the latest stimulus package.

Still, he feels as though the “situation is headed in the right direction.” He described his current mindset as “cautiously optimistic.”

Chasing Sage: Opening unknowns 

For the first time since the pandemic iced Chasing Sage’s opening plans, its leadership team on March 19 had a meeting about debuting the restaurant.

A meeting doesn’t mean there’s a set date on which Chasing Sage will welcome people into its dining room. There are still far too many unknowns for that kind of scheduling.

For example, owner Forrest Brunton got his first shot on March 17, so even the restaurant’s owners won’t be through the vaccination process until the middle of April.

Their employees are still hunting for vaccines.

And like Schumacher at Harold’s Cabin, they want to see a greater portion of the population vaccinated before Chasing Sage opens. They haven’t yet determined a precise number: “We need to assess what benchmarks we need to look for,” General Manager Max Clarke said.

Additionally, owner Cindy Edward said, “In our eyes, we’re still opening a COVID dining room,” so they have to write down mask rules and decide how to reconfigure bar stools and tables before even looking at the calendar.

But they’re ready at least to make a list of what else needs to happen inside the restaurant over the coming months. They’ve already completed some tasks by virtue of spending so much time in the space while running pop-ups: The kitchen is organized. The cocktail menu is in good shape.

The wine list, though, needs a total overhaul.

Vintages which qualified as the most recent when Clarke chose bottles for a projected March 2020 opening are no longer the youngest in their respective portfolios. There are wines available now that weren’t available then, and vice versa, although Clarke is pretty sure he can still get a Portuguese orange wine that Cindy Edward loves.

Edward tends to get attached, which is why she doesn’t want anyone getting too specific about when Chasing Sage might open.

Like everyone on the crew, she follows COVID-19 news closely. She knows that progress in the pandemic fight could be undone “if we do something stupid” or variants gain strength. If that should happen, forcing Chasing Sage to postpone or cancel an announced opening date, Edward suspects her heart would break.

After more than one year of safeguarding her health, she went into the meeting about opening with a protective fence around her feelings.

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

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