Editor's note: This story was co-written by Hanna Raskin and Stephanie Burt, a longtime chronicler of the Charleston hospitality scene who contributes The Lowdown to The Post and Courier's Charleston Scene on a biweekly basis. Burt is the host of The Southern Fork podcast, and a Charleston correspondent for Zagat and Food Republic.
In conversations about the Charleston restaurant scene, the same question invariably comes up: Where is it headed next?
It’s the wrong question. Instead, people ought to be asking who sets the course for the local food-and-beverage industry. Because while the city’s culinary surge sometimes looks from the outside like an amorphous, uncontrollable force, it is in fact carefully shaped and steered by community members.
Our goal in identifying and ranking the scene’s most powerful players (other than stirring up debate, of course) was to introduce the eating public to the drivers behind the decisions that result in beef tartare being served in nearly half a dozen restaurants north of Line Street. Just as diners should know their farmers, as the locavore movement holds, they should get to know the area’s string-pullers, too.
Beyond physics laboratories, there is no perfect formula for determining power. We know what power looks like when it’s exercised, but how do you measure its strength in such a diverse sector? At times, we were literally comparing apple pie makers to orange wine salesmen. Very quickly we realized we weren’t going to be able to compile sales tax revenue or restaurant square footage and come up with a satisfactory list.
Our project started with a brainstorm session in The Post and Courier cafeteria, during which we generated 75 names of potential kingmakers.
We then narrowed down the initial group to 50 candidates. As journalists, one of the ways we took a rough gauge of each person’s power was to consider how quickly we’d return his or her phone calls, but other considerations entered into the process as well.
For instance, there were certain segments of the industry in which power is so diffuse that it’s hard to make a strong case for any one representative of it. We really wanted to recognize the Board of Architectural Review’s sway over restaurant projects, but felt we couldn’t plausibly argue that any single person consistently determines which way the commission votes.
Once we had our list of 50, we independently rated each person (or in a few cases, each couple) on a scale of 1-10 in six categories: Cool, Visibility, Demand, Leadership, Recognition and Mentorship. Then we added up all of the scores and divided by 12 — representing the six criteria times two of us — to produce a final number.
Here are the criteria which got us there:
Cool: This is the category that encompasses Instagram followers and festival invitations. Bill Murray scored really highly here. But more broadly, it covers the person’s trendsetting capabilities.
Visibility: People with paid publicists tended to do better in this exposure-focused category, which involves appearing in all of the right places, including on selective guest lists and magazine pages.
Demand: You know the expression, “It’s not a popularity contest”? Not applicable here. Demand refers to how badly people want a seat in your restaurant, an hour of your time or anything else you have to offer.
Leadership: Points were awarded here for serving on boards and doing charitable work. But vision also is a component of leadership, which means bravery, creativity and confidence play into this category.
Recognition: The most quantifiable of the categories, recognition entails collecting awards.
Mentorship: Generally, a person’s mentorship score is very similar to his or her leadership score, since the two notions are closely related. But mentorship more specifically refers to the number and influence of a person’s protegees.
We decided at the outset not to consider anyone affiliated with The Post and Courier, for fairness’ sake. But that doesn’t mean we’re detached observers. In the interest of full disclosure, it’s important to note that between the two of us, we have professional or personal relationships with every person on this list. In many ways, the local food-and-beverage scene is a closed ecosystem.
Finally, we set out to evaluate power, not redistribute it. In the face of the power dynamics already embedded in American life, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the list is white and predominantly male.
And without further ado, meet the folks who have the say-so:
1. Mike Lata, chef/partner, FIG and The Ordinary
In an industry so notorious for failures that many would-be restaurateurs can’t get a dime in borrowed money, Mike Lata has appeared in ads for South State Bank. And financial types aren’t the only ones who trust Lata: His restaurants are widely regarded as the best in town, a title that FIG maintained even after Lata turned over his executive chef job to his mentee Jason Stanhope, who promptly won a James Beard Foundation award.
2. Steve Palmer, managing partner, The Indigo Road
Charleston residents who eat out regularly can’t help but brush up against a Steve Palmer production, whether it comes in the form of coffee at Mercantile, brunch at The Macintosh or steaks at Oak. But as a founder of the annual No Kid Hungry Gala and Ben’s Friends, a support group for hospitality workers struggling with addiction, Palmer also has touched the lives of people who can’t afford to dine at his many restaurants.
3. Glenn Roberts, founder, Anson Mills
Charleston has always had shrimp. But grits didn’t enter the culinary stratosphere until Glenn Roberts became obsessed with corn. An amateur agricultural historian and energetic salesman, Roberts, who is a veteran of the city’s white-tablecloth scene and current Columbia resident, is responsible for greasing the connectors between growers and chefs, and inspiring all of them to strive for the highest levels of culinary quality. Despite his fascination with the past, Roberts is the local embodiment of looking forward.
4. Mickey Bakst, general manager, Charleston Grill
General managers are supposed to solve problems, so it’s no big shock when Bakst comes up with an off-menu dish or coveted reservation for a restaurant guest. Yet Bakst doesn’t confine his fixing instincts to the dining room: His many contributions to the community include Feed the Need, Teach the Need, and most recently, Meet the Needs, funding bus service for residents living beyond walking distance of their closest grocery store.
5. Bill Hall, owner, Hall Management Group
For many area diners, Hall went from being the guy who shook hands at his eponymous steakhouse to an undeniable scene-shaker with the purchase of Maverick Southern Kitchens in 2015. Hall’s company employs hundreds of people at its six area restaurants and is perpetually looking to expand its brand, with another outlet now planned for Savannah. Hall was last year named president of the Greater Charleston Restaurant Association.
6. Angel Postell, owner, Home Team Public Relations
As co-founder and first executive director of the Charleston Wine + Food Festival, Postell helped introduce Charleston to the world by attracting and impressing big-name chefs and journalists from off. Since leaving the festival in 2013, she’s continued to advance the culinary conversation as Charleston city editor of The Daily Meal and owner of Home Team PR, which counts Edmund’s Oast and Limehouse Produce among its clients. In 2016, Postell launched yet another large-scale event, Bev Con Charleston, which received overwhelmingly positive reviews from participants and attendees.
7. Jack and Andrea Limehouse, owners, Limehouse Produce
When Charleston restaurants make good on their promise of serving local, seasonal fruits and vegetables, the credit often belongs to Limehouse Produce, which Jack Limehouse’s father launched in the 1940s. Jack Limehouse isn’t a schmoozer — according to his company’s website, he likes onions best because they make people cry – but the couple is a strong supporter of charitable organizations and culinary education. The company this year is opening a new warehouse, a $8.3 million project.
8. Terri Henning, real estate investor
If the local dining scene has a patron, it’s Terri Henning, whose star-studded rooftop dinners were the sterling events of the Charleston Wine + Food Festival schedule for the eight years in which they were held. Henning has personally and professionally supported young chefs, championing energetic talents who’ve since become celebrities. When "Top Chef" expressed interest in coming to Charleston, it was Henning who the Convention and Visitors Bureau tapped as ambassador to the production staff.
9. David Thompson, owner, David Thompson Architect
Chances are, you’ve eaten or raised a glass in a space that David Thompson designed. The architect’s projects include Artisan Meat Share, Indaco, FIG and The Daily. And regardless of whether you’ve noticed it, he’s helped set the local tone with his material choices. Thompson can tackle it all, including adaptive reuse and renovation. His flexibility has garnered him a devoted following since opening his own firm in 2010. His scale varies too, from the massive Cigar Factory to Chef Mike Lata’s own house.
10. Melany Robinson, owner, Polished Pig Media
Since starting Polished Pig Media in 2012, Robinson has assembled an impressive collection of clients, including multiple James Beard award-winning restaurants, the Southern Foodways Alliance and Garden & Gun magazine. A consummate professional, Robinson has a reputation for rooting out talent, fostering it and promoting it on a national stage. If an outfit is represented by Polished Pig, journalists take notice: When folks say Sean Brock must have a great press agent, it’s no knock on Brock to acknowledge they’re right.
11. Helen Hill, CEO, Charleston Area Convention and Visitors Bureau
Named executive director of the CVB mere weeks before Hurricane Hugo, Hill has been at the forefront of Charleston’s image building since the city’s restaurant scene was in its infancy. Creative and highly motivated, Hill not only focused on increasing direct flights, improving visitor access to the city, but she folded Charleston restaurants into the city’s brand-marketing effort, which commands a $12 million annual budget.
12. Sean Brock, executive chef, Neighborhood Dining Group
When Americans think of Charleston, they think of Sean Brock (never mind that he lives in Nashville). Brock has earned national stature as host of PBS’ "Mind of a Chef," author of the award-winning "Heritage" book and popular guest star of Anthony Bourdain’s television shows. Even as Husk has grown to two locations, with another two on the way, the restaurant that spawned a million prestigious press mentions remains atop every Charleston visitor’s must-eat list. It’s a fitting response to Brock’s status as the James Beard Award-winningest chef in town.
13. Sara Clow, general manager, GrowFood Carolina
California transplant Clow has taken the Coastal Conservation League’s budding idea of a food hub for farmers to full bloom through her six-year tenure at GrowFood Carolina. Growing from five farmers to more than 75 under Clow, the food hub has become a major player in the “eat local” movement, providing consistent supply to restaurants, grocery stores and institutions such as the College of Charleston, all while sending close to $3 million back to South Carolina farmers.
14. Brooks Reitz, principal, Neighbourhood
The former general manager of The Ordinary and creator of Jack Rudy Tonic (and its ever-evolving offshoots), Reitz is now melding his creativity and management prowess with some serious real estate. Along with Tim Mink, his partner in restaurant group Neighbourhood, he’s responsible for Closed for Business, Monza, Leon’s Oyster Shop and Little Jack’s Tavern. Reitz is adept at spotting trends, upholding quality and, of course, for knowing that a little tavern burger can make a big splash.
15. Scott Shor, owner, Edmund’s Oast and Edmund's Oast Exchange
If there is a conversation about beer in Charleston, Shor’s likely to be mentioned in it. While working at Ted’s Butcherblock, he and partner Rich Carley started the Charleston Beer Exchange, consistently ranked as one of the best beer retail stores in the world by ratebeer.com. The store will re-emerge this year as Edmund’s Oast Exchange, a corollary to his game-changer of a restaurant and brew pub. And along with fellow power players Jamie Tenney and David Merritt, he’s a founder of Brewvival, now in its eighth year.
16. Randi Weinstein, creator, FAB
Director of events for the Charleston Wine + Food Festival from 2006-2014, Weinstein developed close relationships with and became a mentor to many in the food-and-beverage community during her tenure. In 2015, along with Sarah Adams, Kelly Kleisner and a gang of women from various bars and restaurants, Weinstein hosted a dinner series that helped raise more than $50,000 for culinary scholarships. But it’s her latest project, FAB, a two-day conference for women in food and beverage, which promises to have the biggest impact of all. It’s already garnered her a spot on Southern Living’s 2016 Southerners of the Year list.
17. Michael Shemtov, owner, Butcher & Bee
A self-described hustler, Michael Shemtov has been instrumental in diversifying Charleston’s culinary scene by expounding on Israeli cuisine at Butcher & Bee and supporting chefs from a range of backgrounds through pop-ups at The Daily. His forthcoming Pacific Box & Crate development will offer short-term stall leases to culinary entrepreneurs. In addition to his philanthropic work, Shemtov also is acutely aware of the political dimensions of hospitality: He helped organize a food-and-beverage-focused mayoral forum in 2015.
18. Steve Zoukis, CEO, Raven Cliff Co.
Charlestonians are still trying to figure out what to call the area that’s sometimes referred to as NoMo, a conundrum that can be fairly pinned on Steve Zoukis, the developer behind the Half Mile North and Pacific Box & Crate projects. A former attorney who 10 years ago arrived in Charleston, Zoukis has been a committed promoter of ambitious food-and-beverage concepts, pushing the city’s culinary presence ever farther up the peninsula.
19. Jed Portman, assistant editor, Garden & Gun
Portman has a sharp eye for trends and a cook’s soul, both of which help interest otherwise culinarily apathetic readers in everything from country ham to his first-person account of a biscuit-making session at Bojangles. Those qualities also endear him to Southern chefs, yielding plenty of exclusives that reflect Portman’s respect for tradition and curiosity about the future. And as assistant editor for a magazine that boasts an audience of 1.5 million, what he says, investigates and reports upon matter in the marketplace.
20. Mike Seekings, Charleston City Council member, District 8
As representative for the city’s most active restaurant district, Mike Seekings is a leading voice on quality-of-life issues closely related to the hospitality industry, including short-term rentals, housing costs and curfews. But currently his most important role is as chair of the Charleston Area Regional Transportation Authority, since the inability of restaurant workers to reach downtown jobs (and the parking problems that would-be diners face) are among the greatest threats to the health of the food-and-beverage scene.
21. Ann Marshall and Scott Blackwell, owners, High Wire Distilling Co.
Ann Marshall and Scott Blackwell, late of the successful Immaculate Baking Company, are quietly reinvigorating the Lowcountry’s agricultural sector and more publicly, commanding national attention for their experimental spirits. Within city limits, though, the married couple functions as a kind of aesthetic inspector for Charleston bars and restaurants: By paying frequent visit to places where their liquor is sold, they implicitly hold venues to the quality standard met by their distillery’s products.
22. David Merritt and Jaime Tenney, owners, COAST Brewing
COAST Brewing this year celebrates a decade in business. Through it all, Tenney has been an advocate for the Lowcountry brewing community, from lobbying for a change in laws governing high-alcohol brews to co-founding Brewvival, an annual beer festival that showcases local beers and special releases in an open-air format with live music. Additionally, COAST hosts significant educational events, from pop-ups to workshops, and produces beer that legitimizes its position at the top of Charleston’s beer game.
23. Anonymous line cook
While ubiquity is often a component of power, line cooks and other restaurant employees are wielding clout purely by virtue of being hard to find. Trained and disciplined line cooks are the highly desirable unicorns of an industry that can’t function without kitchen help. Even though restaurant staffers aren’t rich or well-connected, they’re the ones who ultimately determine whether restaurants open as scheduled (and, in some cases, stay in business.)
24. Frank Lee, chef emeritus, Hall Management Group
Although Lee retired in 2016, he still derives considerable power from fostering so much of the talent shaping the current scene, from Forrest Parker at Drawing Room to Chelsey Conrad at Butcher & Bee. The principles of sourcing local ingredients and designing seasonal menus were tenets in very few Charleston kitchens until Lee came along. For proof of his influence, just watch the deference that greets him when he walks into any event where his proteges are present.
25. Jamee Haley, executive director, Lowcountry Local First
Through her nine-year stint at nonprofit Lowcountry Local First, Haley has become the voice of the little guy in the face of great changes sweeping through the city. Her organization supports a wide range of businesses, but among its ranks are plenty of farmers, retailers and restaurateurs, as well as a growing number of specialty food producers who view her as an advocate. The organization’s Growing New Farmers and Apprenticeship program graduated 16 new farmers in 2016 alone.