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South Carolina restaurants and workers are still struggling, per survey

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The patio at The War Mouth

A survey of South Carolina restaurants show that despite the pandemic appearing to be on the wane, the detrimental effects on the hospitality industry are as severe as ever.

The South Carolina Restaurant and Lodging Association publicized a report this week that detailed those results and others based on January restaurant business. Among the most glaring statistics was the continued sales dip compared to last year, with 78 percent of respondents saying they faced worse Januarys than a year ago. Overall, sales dropped 25 percent between January 2020 and January 2021.

35 percent of owners expected sales to drop last month and this month. 30 percent don’t expect business to return to "normal levels" for anywhere from seven to 12 months, and 24 percent still think it'll be more than a year.

The survey further found that 11 percent of South Carolina resturant owners owners “say they will 'probably' or 'definitely' be closed within 3 months” without further federal government aid.

Despite that pessimism, Bobby Williams, the association's chairman, had a rosy outlook.

“I think in South Carolina, I think by late spring, we will be back pretty well on our way,” said the owner of the Columbia-area Lizard's Thicket restaurant chain.

Williams pointed to the potential for a strong tourism season in the spring and fall, along with the growing number of vaccinations. Additionally, he suggested that events — like the Rosewood Crawfish Festival, which announced on March 3 that it planned to go ahead with an in-person celebration on May 1 — will likely begin to trickle back and further aid struggling businesses.

A year ago, the cancellation or removal of spectators from numerous events, like Augusta's Masters golf tournament (which spills over into Columbia with people looking for lodging) and local favorite St. Pats in Five Points, which was cancelled again this year, damaged many restaurants’ outlooks, along with state mandates for dining room closures.

Restaurant workers are taking their share of the damage as well, according to the SCRLA survey. 22 percent of employers laid off employees in December and January. 69 percent of employers have lower staffing levels than usual. And only 19 percent of employers expected to grow their employee counts in February and March.

But Williams was equally optimistic that the future outlook for employers would improve. He called it an “employees’ market” due to the number of owners who could look to hire.

“No, no business is going to get better now. Absolutely, we’re going to get back to normal,” he said.

The report also detailed that pivoting to to-go sales hasn't made much of a dent. Of owners that increased carryout sales, 71 percent said that made up for less than 30 percent of lost on-site sales.

The National Restaurant Association released their own version of this report last month. South Carolina's results are slightly more encouraging, with 61 percent of national respondents expecting it to take anywhere from seven to 12 months or more than a year for business to return to normal.

That survey broke it down by restaurant sector. Predictably, fine dining restaurant respondents expected it to take the longest for normalcy to return, while coffee and snack, fast-casual spots and quick-service restaurants were the most optimistic.

Another release by the national trade group detailed that January was the first month in four to see an increase in restaurant sales. However, much like in South Carolina, they still lagged significantly behind pre-pandemic levels. 

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