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Some Columbia eateries plan to keep curbside pickup and other COVID shifts around

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Earlier in the COVID-19 pandemic, Columbia's Drip Coffee, like many restaurants, had to change and reduce hours due to COVID-19. They've since reopened for partial indoor seating, yet with many modifications still in place.

Before the pandemic, Mollie Schmolze would often avoid most local shops and restaurants if her young son was with her. Her now three-and-half-year-old son would often fall asleep in the car and Schmolze would be reluctant to wake him to enter. Businesses with a drive-through or delivery were vital.

Then came the COVID-19 pandemic and another baby, a daughter. Based on her pre-pandemic lifestyle, Schmolze should have almost never seen a local restaurant or store without a drive-through again. But early on, the businesses’ survival tactics — curbside pickup, expanded delivery options — became surprising boons for her.

“Having curbside has been a lifesaver,” she said.

Schmolze was quick to note that she’s lucky to largely be unaffected by the pandemic, with no deaths in her family or job losses. But these efforts are still a welcome improvement for her, with her parenting responsibilities and her husband’s asthma condition.

Schmolze worries that these welcome changes will begin to fade away as the pandemic fades in South Carolina, leaving her with options that trend away from local and instead into national chains like Starbucks that frequently offer drive throughs.

“I think that places should continue it, because it's so helpful to so many people. I think people don’t really think about people with kids a lot. That’s not what a lot of places — the coffee places, bars, restaurants — think about,” she lamented. “We’re a college town, people who work at the State House and USC. I don’t think it will continue, but I think it really sucks.”

Schmolze is likely right (and reported she's experienced as much at some local shops). It lines up with the state's economic reopening, which began months ago, as Gov. Henry McMaster removed any type of restrictions on restaurants. Many have reopened fully, though there are some holdouts. 

But a trio of business owners — a far cry from a representative sample of the city’s scene — reported to Free Times that they’re still holding on to some of the shifts they implemented early on in the pandemic, despite what some see as diminished demand.

“There will be people that are not comfortable going out for a good bit longer than they are right now. We want to be accommodating to those folks,” said Eddie Wales, owner of the Vista fine dining restaurant Motor Supply Company Bistro.

That emphasis on accommodating customers is certainly accurate for Motor Supply. Despite all the talk that was applied to business shifts like curbside pickup, it never made up a significant amount of the restaurant's sales — and still doesn’t.

Wales reported that Motor Supply’s peak with curbside pickup was five to 10 orders a night, and it’s dwindled since. Yet, as his dining room has reopened for partial occupancy, he doesn’t plan on setting the offering aside.

Sure, it might tie up a worker on the phone, but it doesn’t take up a table in the restaurant.

“It’s kind of like gravy,” Wales said.

In contrast, customers at Jessica Shillato’s Spotted Salamander Cafe and Catering have remained interested in curbside takeout, much to her surprise.

“We thought it would go away by now, but we don’t think it is going to go away, because it is so convenient,” she elaborated. “The customers don’t even have to talk to us if they don’t want to.”

While the restaurant has long done take-home family-style meals for the holidays, last year they were especially popular, and Shillato debuted an Easter meal for the first time, which sold well, too.

Motor Supply’s Wales added that there’s been other changes around cleanliness, such as double sanitizing tables after guests leave, that he expected to become permanent as they've become habit at this point.

Also, the restaurant's menu, which typically shifts daily, has stayed the same for longer periods. Wales suggested that has helped them improve, despite the quickly changing specials long being a calling card for the restaurant. 

He also expects Motor Supply will stop a few tables short of the amount it used before the pandemic.

“We clamped down on our costs and are taking regular inventories and things like that," Wales explained. "COVID basically forced us to be a better restaurant, and I think we’ve succeeded."

In Five Points, the popular coffee shop Drip offered takeout only and deliveries early in the pandemic. As time went on and businesses began reopening, the shop was effectively forced to stop offering deliveries, owner Sean McCrossin explained.

“Just didn’t have enough labor to continue on when things opened back again,” he said.

While that faded out, other shifts the shop incorporated — a mobile app, take-and-bake cookies and scones, curbside pickup — are still available and will likely remain for the foreseeable future.

Even a pesky layout shift at the Five Points store — customers now enter though the next door sister business Scoopy Doo and exit through Drip’s original entrance — is offering some returns. Customers who were unaware of the gelato shop are now familiar with it, and the shop’s retail record collection, in the seating area which customers must walk through on their way to the counter, garners more interest, too, McCrossin reported.

“I just think it's given more exposure to the shop's imprint. People didn’t even realize they could sit outdoors before," he said. "So in a way we’ve expanded."

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