Two Boroughs Larder, which three times appeared on the James Beard Foundation’s list of semifinalists for Best Chef Southeast and ranked as a favorite of local chefs, is closing on July 30.
Josh and Heather Keeler say they’re shutting down the popular five-year-old Cannonborough-Elliotborough restaurant in deference to their quality of life. According to Josh Keeler, the restaurant was structured in such a way that the young married couple always had to be on the premises: He’s most looking forward to spending time with his nephew and contemplating a vacation.
“It definitely became more grueling,” says Keeler, 33, who anticipated running the restaurant for 10 years. “We looked at each other and said, ‘Are we going to be doing this for the rest of our lives? Does this make us happy? Cooking makes me happy, and working with people makes Heather happy, but it kind of became a big struggle. We didn’t ever want to become bitter or angry.”
While the Keelers emphasize the positive aspects of their decision, Josh Keeler allows that the area’s chronic understaffing crisis contributed to his burnout. For one two-month period, he manned the kitchen with just one other cook, and was ultimately forced to scale back Two Boroughs’ menu because he didn’t have the workforce to do justice to it.
“If us closing is the start of something, I’m not sure, but it has gotten to point where it’s a little bit frightening,” Keeler says. “The sheer fact that so many restaurants are opening, that’s a little bit scary.”
As recently as two or three years ago, when industry observers broached the possibility of a “restaurant bubble,” they assumed there was a finite number of interested diners. But Keeler says he never had trouble attracting guests; his only regret is opening a restaurant with only 40 seats. Rather, the current threat to continued growth is related to the lack of employees.
“My biggest fear is we spread so thin, the quality of our food and service drops,” Keeler says. “We never wanted to drop our standards.”
Perhaps the most desired employee now on the market is Keeler himself, who has expressed interest in taking a restaurant job. Prior to opening Two Boroughs Larder, the New England Culinary Institute grad worked briefly at Monza.
“I never had opportunity to work under someone really, really great,” he says. “I kind of got to the point where I really wanted to work for one of them; I would love to work for a guy like Jason (Stanhope, executive chef of FIG.) I think I could stand to learn a lot from a guy like that. It’s time to get inspired again: I’m more than willing to walk away and not be in charge. That’s perfectly fine with me.”
When Two Boroughs Larder opened, it was the rare restaurant that deviated from the standard Charleston fine dining script. It simultaneously stressed casual preparations, such as burgers and noodle bowls, and scrupulously sourced ingredients, such as local shellfish and grains, when most restaurants did one or the other.
“I feel like when we opened, there was not a lot like us,” Keeler says. “And we kind of wanted to show everyone that a young couple or a young team could come in and push the boundaries.”
He continues, “Maybe we gave people a little bit of courage to do something a little bit different.”