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After more closures, SC relaxing restrictions, Columbia restaurants chart uncertain course

Open and Shut

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Blue Flour (copy)

Blue Flour Bakery on Main Street

COLUMBIA — Just before announcing its permanent closure, Ricky Mollohan was gearing up to reopen Solstice Kitchen. The restaurant, which closed on Oct. 28, was supposed to return to business on Oct. 30.

The move to resume business at his Northeast Columbia restaurant was met with a notice from his landlord — he must pay all past-due rent within 30 days. Instead, he came to an agreement to shutter and leave all of the restaurant equipment and furnishings.

“Even if I could have come up with [the money], there was nothing in place to offer any sort of wiggle room, any sort of adjustments going forward,” Mollohan explained.

Solstice joined the Main Street location of Blue Flour Bakery in announcing its closure last week, with both citing the COVID-19-triggered economic downturn as the primary reason. The two announcements came just days before Gov. Henry McMaster’s Oct. 2 announcement that he was relaxing South Carolina’s mandated restaurant restrictions.

Now, with Solstice and Blue Flour joining Columbia favorites Uncle Louie’s and Yesterdays on the list of bars and restaurants that have closed since the start of the pandemic, it remains to be seen what impact ending the state’s restrictions will make.

“I think we’re just seeing the beginning of them, there’s going to be a lot more,” said Bobby Williams, owner of the Midland’s meat-and-three chain Lizard’s Thicket and chair of the South Carolina Restaurant and Lodging Association, speaking to the possibility of more local closures.

Williams pointed to Charleston, the state’s crown jewel for dining, where he said more than 20 restaurants have closed, for evidence.

McMaster’s move last week nixed restrictions on occupancy limits and mandates for space between tables. The move is certain to thrill many Columbia restaurateurs, who have anxiously dealt with difficult business, and to irritate others, who feel the move will only drag out the pandemic’s local impact, further delaying a return to normal life and the regular business that accompanies it.

In an interview prior to the announcement, Williams said he hoped the loosening of occupancy restrictions would come, along with a removal of another order cutting of restaurant alcohol sales at 11 p.m. The latter didn’t happen, but the first would help an ailing industry, he reasoned.

Williams also cited the loss of numerous spring and summer events, like the Masters golf tournament, graduations and others as continued stressors on business.

“The restaurateurs have been handcuffed, even the ones that are open, you can barely make ends meet [at half capacity], but you can keep the doors open,” he offered.

In Columbia, much of the damage, he suggested, depends on the location and set up of a restaurant’s location. He said his Lizard’s Thicket locations with drive-thru are outperforming those without them.

Meanwhile, downtown restaurants like Blue Flour are facing declines due to office buildings still being sparsely populated, Williams posited, which is exacerbated by an especially slow breakfast period.

The root of the woes at Solstice Kitchen, which had not reopened throughout the pandemic due to health concerns, came down to a lack of funds, said Mollohan, who also owns Mr. Friendly’s New Southern Cafe in Five Points.

Though his landlord forced the issue, he didn’t blame them for their actions. He said his fault was trusting that “common sense” would lead to sufficient governmental assistance for the restaurant industry, particularly for sit-down, “experiential”-based eateries like his.

Restaurants like his rely on bar tabs and extended stays. They shun the to-go options, drive-through windows and speedy service that many have turned to during the pandemic.

In a lengthy Facebook post announcing the closure, Mollohan wrote that he had no regrets for keeping the restaurant closed throughout the pandemic. He was the sole person responsible if something backfired, he noted that his daughter is immunocompromised.

He said he didn’t believe McMaster’s move to relax the restrictions was “wise,” and that those restrictions weren’t the problem for businesses.

“The problem isn’t having to do things to help keep the community healthy, it’s not having the help from the powers that be,” Mollohan told Free Times.

In West Columbia, the well-regarded fine dining spot Terra has done relatively well, but it’s still not performing up to its typical standards, reported owner and chef Mike Davis.

McMaster’s move to relax restrictions will be met with different reactions, he suggested. Some may move to embrace the renewed freedom, while others, like himself, may take a slower approach. He said he’s still uncertain what tact he’ll take, but he plans to “ease into it.”

That move will likely agree with the customers Terra has drawn so far since reopening — people Davis described as appreciating the restaurant’s safety practices.

Steve Cook, owner of the Five Points fine dining restaurant Saluda’s, agreed with Davis, saying that his business’s performance since reopening has thus far been comparable to previous years.

“I don’t know how that necessarily will even affect our policy,” he said of the relaxed restrictions. “It doesn’t necessarily behoove me to change, especially if it gives folks pause.”

Terra’s Davis has been a strong supporter of the Independent Restaurant Coalition, a group that emerged at the onset of the pandemic to advocate and lobby for independent restaurants.

That group has pushed heavily for further federal relief programs, as much of the prior programs — the Paycheck Protection Program, for example — have run their course. Davis said that will be the main key to staving off more closures in Columbia.

“I think until that happens, and some of these places can get that help, we’re going to see more closing,” he said.

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