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Columbia watering hole Uncle Louie's closes due to coronavirus

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Uncle Louie’s was so close to its 20th anniversary. On May 2, the long-standing Vista bar would have passed that impressive milestone. But like so much else in the hospitality world, coronavirus ruined those plans. Co-owner Bill White’s decision to close, announced April 29 via Facebook, was a difficult one. He was monitoring the likelihood that Gov. Henry McMaster would reopen restaurants and bars and struggled to envision a feasible scenario for his bar. As a small, roughly 80-capacity business, murmurs that reopening could come with half capacity, or less, poured water on whatever optimism he had left. He points to uncertainty surrounding when University of South Carolina students might come back and whether Gamecock football games will be played with fans. “There’s too much uncertainty with our size,” White tells Free Times. “We’re not one of those mega bars. … We relied mostly on tips.”

White’s not the first hospitality business owner to mull the same concerns and come to the same conclusion. Iconic Five Point’s institution Yesterdays closed on April 21 due to coronavirus uncertainty. In a bitter twist to the closures, the two establishment’s histories are linked. White nods to Yesterday’s co-owner Duncan MacRae, who he called his mentor, and taught him how to run a business. He worked for McRae during college for five years and reminisces about learning from him while he was pursuing his hospitality degree. “He said, ‘Why are you going to school for it? I can teach you everything you [need to learn]. … This is your biggest classroom,” White remembers. He says he stayed on at USC to get a degree because his mother wanted to watch him get his degree. And eventually, he did, but that wasn’t until he opened Uncle Louie’s at age 25 in the former space of a bar that only had made it for seven or eight months before shuttering. It was a success early on, too. After three years, the business paid off its debt and was well on its way to building a no-frills atmosphere that attracted a devoted crew of regulars to the intimate space. White credits that for the bar’s longevity. “There were always interesting people you could talk to. Our regulars were from 25 to 65. We had sports fans [and] non sports fans,” White posits. “We ran the gamut of regulars who could talk to each other. I think that was it — you could walk in there by yourself and you could talk to people.”

Over the years, the bar developed a tight-knit and long-tenured five-person staff (one bartender had been with the bar for 18 years). White says telling his staff it was the end was the hardest part about shutting down. But he nods to the city’s community-oriented hospitality scene and suggests that it gives him hope things will shake out alright for his staff. “I think people are going to look out for each other. I think some good will come out of this,” White Concludes. “Hopefully people will come together.”

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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