It’s been a strange year for Free Times newcomer David Clarey. Coming to town from St. Paul, Minnesota, he took over as the paper’s full-time food writer in November.
A graduate of the University of Minnesota where he received a degree in journalism, he spent a year reporting on local politics and education at Minnesota’s RiverTown Multimedia. With a family background in the restaurant industry and growing interest in working on food writing, Clarey found the opportunity he was looking for in Columbia.
The few months after he arrived would bring on a pandemic that has shaken life, not just in Columbia, but around the world, and rocked the local food scene just as he was getting acquainted with it. I spoke with David about his unusual first year in South Carolina, from his transition to food writing to adapting to life post-COVID-19.
The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Free Times: I wanted to talk a bit about you pre-COVID experience here. What was it like for you coming to the South and jumping into the work?
David: I feel like when you are not in the South, and you’re not thinking about food in the way that food writers and people who are foodies do, you kind of think of Southern cooking as an umbrella term. I wasn’t aware of the differences in region, or how South Carolina’s Midlands cuisine is different from the Lowcountry, let alone the rest of the South.
Moving here was interesting. I was trying to get up to speed with the city, this new job, this new writing style, all while trying to learn what’s going on with the food and players in the scene. It was a lot of diving in and trying to figure things out.
You arrived at a time when there was a lot of breaking news in the food community. There was Sandy’s closing for instance, along with Earth Fare temporarily shuttering.
There was also the second ever Rush’s closing. Obviously it wasn’t like the chain was closing, but there were these other big places that were closing. In some ways, I didn’t know it was a big deal. When Sandy’s closed, for instance, I was like, “What’s Sandy’s?” because I was still so new to the area. It was part of getting up to speed and learning why they were important as they were suddenly vanishing.
March came around and COVID changed pretty much everything. What was it like as far as covering the early stages of the pandemic?
I remember reading a ton about what it was going to be like for the restaurant industry everywhere. All of the predictions were this is going to be bleak if it is as bad as it could be. There’s some debate on was it as bad as we thought it was going to be or has it been or is it still bad — it’s just been bad and the early predictions were dire.
So part of it was looking at how it was happening from the Columbia level. What’s unique about Columbia, what’s unique about South Carolina? It was really strange, you know? You are trying to predict this thing we never really went through and how the industry will react to it. I’m saying “predict,” but there’s a lot of uncertainty behind those predictions. You never really know what’s going to happen. You don’t know what place will close. Uncertainty is the big theme.
I think it took a bit longer than we expected to start seeing restaurants close down. Yesterdays is one that stands out from that time period. Despite lack of closures, I felt there certainly wasn’t a lack of news. How was it keeping up with the pace of things?
I really wasn’t keeping up. [Laughs]
It was difficult to keep up because things were moving so fast. But, also like you said it did take awhile. It was like we were in stasis, waiting for the first shoe to drop. I don’t know, it’s been weird trying to keep up with it moment to moment, and now today it’s like we have a new ... normal.
I hate that term, but it’s like we’re living side by side with the pandemic. It’s almost like things are kind of normal, but obviously it’s in the background of every decision being made still. It’s a weird circumstance to navigate.
Based on your experiences through these months, what are your current feelings on the restaurant industry in relation to COVID?
I think it’s tough to be anything right now really. I just wrote about some restaurants reopening their dining rooms. I think some may have mixed feelings on whether that is right or not, but I think you can read that two ways: You can view it as things are improving enough that we’re comfortable enough to do this, or we’re finding out that restaurants need to open up for financial reasons — which is not a good sign, obviously.
I can’t say that we won’t see closures coming in the future. Some folks I’ve talked to have looked at the fall where things could get bad if restaurants don’t start doing better. I don’t have a finger on the pulse really on how that prediction is panning out, because as we talked about early on, we thought it would be cataclysmic and that hasn’t happened, which is great. I hope that is the case with this one, but I don’t think we’ll know ‘til we know.