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Columbia's worker-focused downtown eateries continue to feel pandemic pinch

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Downtown Columbia

In January, nine months into the COVID-19 pandemic, the downtown outpost of local coffee roaster and cafe Indah Coffee experienced one of its worst months yet — 70 percent down compared to the same month a year prior.

The moment, which came during one of coronavirus' worst surges, is emblematic of the plight faced by downtown restaurants in Columbia and throughout the country. Such businesses have had to weather losing much of their main clientele: office workers.

It’s left operators like Nick Hauser, who operates Indah locations on Main Street and Sumter Street in Columbia, wondering how long to hold out on what should’ve been a reliable revenue stream with the regular, five-day work week and its hordes of workers. Still, burgeoning vaccination efforts and the promising trend of lower positive testing rates provide some reason to hope.

“That’s a high density area,” Hauser said of normal customer traffic downtown. “Suddenly that density is just not there anymore.”

Hauser added that he’s optimistic the office environment could turn around, but he's uncertain how habits could shift when workers return.

“Their patterns have been disrupted,” he said. “It’s going to be challenging for at least the next six months.”

His business, which opened its downtown outpost in 2018, is now mulling its longterm future at its space in the Arcade Mall. Initially, he shared the relatively small space with two other tenants — Granger Owings and Circa Barbershop — but they have since elected to not renew their lease.

For now, Hauser is taking a wait-and-see approach, attempting to balance the cafe’s seeming strong potential with the short-term losses. He's hopeful that if he can persevere, the location's advantages — the eclectic bunch of tenants in the Arcade Mall and Main Street's overall growth — will help him regain momentum.

“We’re excited about the potential,” Hauser explained. “We’re feeling a little more optimistic."

Even the most entrenched downtown restaurants have struggled amid the pandemic.

At downtown’s iconic fried chicken sandwich eatery Drake’s Duck-In, manager Edwina “Tiny” Harmon said the downturn is among the worst of her tenure, which began in 1997. The only other time that compared was when the city redid Main Street’s roads, creating literal roadblocks that hampered access to the Main Street store front.

“As people stopped working, we really felt the pinch,” Harmon explained of the current downturn.

The restaurant, whose main patrons includes downtown office workers, has relied heavily on, and succeeded with, delivery services like Uber Eats and GrubHub, she said. But, as of late, business has trickled back up to more normal levels, despite Drake's not offering indoor eating yet.

“There’s no need to worry," she reasoned. "I don’t think this place has been around this long for our future or our past to interrupt that."

Joey Von Nessen offered similar optimism. The economist at the University of South Carolina’s Darla Moore School of Business said the nature of the city's snug business center makes it ripe for a rebound.

“The first thing to recognize is the difference between cities like Columbia and cities within South Carolina compared to other metropolitan regions,” he explained. “One of the things we’re likely to find in cities like Columbia, we’re likely to see people returning to work faster than we would in these larger cities.”

Von Nessen pointed to the relative lack of skyscrapers, transit systems and other vertical office buildings compared to cities like Charlotte and, on a much larger scale, New York City. Those buildings and services create inherent obstacles to social distancing, a necessary requirement for offices attempting to return to work.

Still, while companies desire to return to normal operations — which Von Nessen attributes to the productivity and teamwork building fostered by in-person meetings — he said there will be marked shifts based on the efficiency that has come with employees working from home.

“We’re not going to the 2019 economy and the way of doing things, those professional norms,” he said. “I think you’re going to see a movement back to the office, although it’s going to be a different normal than in 2019.”

This uncertainty is further complicated though by the food industry’s reliance on consumer confidence.

Even if the workers return, will they patronize the businesses who desperately need them to do so? Andy Gendil is counting on it.

The owner of the lunch spot Hampton Place Cafe, which has endured for more than three decades, said he’s relying on workers returning to the office for his business’s success. Hampton Place’s sales are down by half and he laid off one of his employees to help sustain the business through the pandemic.

“It’s been rough,” Gendil offered. “I think it’s due to the people working at home.”

He said there was little he could do to stem the losses, particularly in catering, which used to make up 10 percent of the restaurant's business and has been reduced to nearly nothing.

“There’s no way to predict what’s going to happen," he concluded. "This has never happened before."

Von Nessen suggested that worker-focused downtown businesses are also in the same boat as the hospitality industry at large, waiting for vaccination efforts to increase consumer confidence.

“The best case scenario is a situation to where the vaccine is rolled out to virtually the entire population ahead of Memorial Day, before tourism season,” he posited. “Then we could see a really strong year for leisure and hospitality.”

David Clarey joined Free Times in November 2019 as a food and news writer. He's constantly fighting competing desires to try cooking food at home and spending his entire paycheck on Columbia restaurants.

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