Darrell Barnes has been stripping the walls at Yesterdays Restaurant & Tavern of 43 years worth of memories.
For the past few days, the co-owner has been busy taking down pictures, junktiques and even employees’ ashes from the walls of the Five Points hallmark. After four-plus decades, Barnes and his co-owners Duncan and Scottie MacRae knew their run was coming to an end soon, maybe in a year or two, but the global coronavirus pandemic accelerated that plan.
The iconic meat-and-three mecca and bar announced on April 21 it was closing for good.
The restaurant did to-go for a while after Gov. Henry McMaster’s March 17 order shuttering South Carolina restaurant dining rooms, but that stopped on April 4. Afterwards, the three owners crunched the numbers, looked into federal assistance programs through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act and projected different timelines. It all pointed all to a sobering reality — the time to close was now.
“We came to the conclusion that we were going to be sitting here empty for two months, half-empty for another six months,” Barnes tells Free Times. “But we didn’t see a full restaurant for — probably not this year.”
Throughout the pandemic, the immediate effect on the industry has been harrowing, with future projections often looking even more dire. The New York Times reported on March 20 that many restaurant analysts were predicting that 75 percent of independent restaurants could close due to COVID-19.
Since McMaster issued his order, restaurants have pivoted to takeout-exclusive models, though some have found the shift to be unsustainable or have not yet decided to give it a shot.
Yesterdays’ shuttering represents maybe the most haunting loss that the pandemic can inflict on a city’s restaurant scene. Hardwired into the culture of Columbia and the University of South Carolina for decades, it was the kind of place that helped give a community its identity.
“Located at the intersection of Harden, Devine and Santee streets in the Five Points entertainment district, Yesterdays Restaurant & Tavern would be recognizable for the shape of the building — a triangular wedge — even if it weren’t for the cowboy in the bathtub over the front door,” The State‘s Susan Ardis wrote in 2018, in an article called “40 years of Yesterdays: Iconic Five Points restaurant recalls past, looks to future.”
And like every restaurant closure, it has other impacts — leaving workers without a job, disrupting the local food supply chain, injecting new doubt into the minds of other owners as to whether they can keep open or reopen when this crisis passes. As the pandemic’s grip on Columbia stretches past a month and into the indeterminate future, restaurants are grappling with an imperfect and necessary federal assistance program, middling take-out sales and the prospects of what a potential reopening may look like.
How — and how many — local restaurants will make it through this is a question that’s weighing heavily on the Columbia business community, and the answers are far from definite.
Rock and a Hard Place
In South Carolina, where leisure and hospitality makes up 12 percent of jobs, the pandemic wrought heavy economic damage.
Per data estimates from the National Restaurant Association and the American Hotel and Lodging Association, South Carolina has lost 179,853 jobs in the hospitality sector — 156,000 from restaurants and 23,853 from lodging. Revenue data is still unavailable for lodging businesses, yet it’s expected that the state will lose $740 million in revenue from restaurants. Overall tourism revenues in the state are projected to land 50 percent below what was expected for the year.
Small, independent restaurants are particularly vulnerable to the pandemic for several reasons, explains Robin DiPietro, who shared the economic data with Free Times.
The USC professor and director of the International Institute for Foodservice Research and Education points to the perishable inventory that eateries were saddled with when the pandemic started, materials that are bought and paid for and now extremely difficult to cook and sell. This liability is compounded by the difficulty of making the finances and logistics of a takeout model work for many restaurants.
“Not all restaurants can have delivery or takeout, it doesn’t translate,” DiPietro elaborates.
Despite that, restaurants throughout the city have been forced to give takeout a try — the results have been mixed and a far cry from typical sales. Attempts range from retail sales of wine, beer or house-made sauces, to family-style meals and take-and-bake options.
And local restaurants are in worse positions compared to corporate chains, which have more financial depth to fortify them against current conditions.
“You have an independent business owner that might work with their two children and two employees and those people are out of jobs,” DiPietro elaborates.
It’s critical for these businesses that the industry comes back online, for the sake of jobs. But that imperative flies against the precautions many health experts say are still necessary to slow COVID-19’s spread.
DiPietro says reopening needs to start being strategized, with a plan that emphasizes health measures.
“We need to get open, but we don’t need to rush things,” she posits.
Empty Streets, Empty Dining Rooms
A drive down Harden Street into the Five Points shows a decidedly different atmosphere than normal — less traffic, less people and less restaurants open.
Patios at typically hopping restaurants like Home Team BBQ lay dormant, unable to take advantage of spring’s shift away from the winter. At the outpost of the burger-and-shake chain Cookout, one can peer through the glass and see a dining room stacked with outdoor patio furniture. Along Saluda Avenue, where a host of restaurants and businesses reside, the often headache-inducing parking situation is suddenly easy, with ample empty spaces available.
Absent students, Five Points’ notorious nightlife is reduced to the occasional Cookout or Chick-fil-A drive through customer.
Just as Columbia’s hospitality scene should be coming alive, coronavirus has all but shut it down.
An April 16 poll of restaurant owners done by the Independent Restaurant Coalition, a restaurant advocacy group, and the James Beard Foundation paints the situation in bleak terms. The poll asked owners how much longer they can survive. Twenty-eight percent of restaurants in cities with mandatory closures said they don’t believe they can survive more than a month of closure. Another 28 percent said they believe they can only survive up to two months of closures.
Outside of Columbia, the industry seems to agree that, despite how bad things may be, public health needs to be a top priority.
In Georgia, Gov. Brian Kemp decided to allow restaurants to reopen under certain restrictions on April 27 and the Republican governor faced steep criticism. Many restaurant owners declared they wouldn’t re-open, citing that it was far too early.
While a date to re-open is undetermined in South Carolina, the wheels are beginning to turn. On April 20, McMaster launched the accelerateSC task force, which aims to “consider and recommend economic revitalization plans for South Carolina” as public health allows.
Bobby Williams, CEO and chairman of the local Southern food chain Lizard’s Thicket and chairman of the South Carolina Restaurant and Lodging Association, is on that task force and tells Free Times he wants to see restaurants be able to reopen in mid-May under very specific health guidelines.
Wiliams says the May date was targeted because coronavirus cases were on the downswing in South Carolina, it provides restaurant suppliers enough time to restock and allows restaurants to prepare.
“We would like to open the same way we closed,” he says. “We will open at reduced seating and slowly but surely get back to normal, but it might be a couple of months before we get back to normal.”
If that call to reopen came in South Carolina it would be a welcome one, owners say, but it would require sufficient testing capabilities and new coronavirus cases in significant decline.
“I would love it, if that could happen, [but] I don’t think setting a date at this point, for me, to open is realistic,” says Tim Gardner, owner of Main Street’s Lula Drake Wine Parlour. ”For me, it’s not a question. I get the economics — look, I’m a small business owner. I have to make a living. However, I think it’s absolutely insane at this point to think we can dictate when this is going to be over or safe.”
Porter Barron, owner of Cottontown’s Midlands-focused Southern restaurant The War Mouth, echoes much of Gardner’s sentiments. He says without prevalent testing he can’t imagine opening. That comes as the restaurant isn’t making enough to cover rent or afford much of its overhead. But it has been able to defer some of those expenses.
“I’ll say very generally we could see us going a few more weeks or months, but we need more reassurances,” Barron offers, before pausing and continuing: “Where are the damn tests?”
But if opening comes at 50 percent capacity, both Kristian Niemi, owner of the popular restaurants Bourbon and Black Rooster, and Gardner are uncertain how helpful that’d actually be. Gardner points to his 49 seat capacity being cut to around 24 and says “there’s just no way” it would work.
Niemi and his team have been running various scenarios at 50 percent capacity and sales, and he says it would be difficult to make that work financially, but acknowledges they’d still likely reopen.
“When you’re already talking about businesses that run 5 to 10 percent profit margin, now you’re going to cut the revenue in half … it far outweighs everything you can handle,” he explains.
DiPietro, the USC professor, has helped build a set of health and sanitation guidelines, based on other states’ measures and her expertise, for the South Carolina Restaurant and Lodging Association to illustrate what best practices might look like if restaurants reopen. These were delivered as part of Williams’ opening proposal to the governor on Friday.
DiPietro details that it will likely include re-cleaning and re-sanitizing at regular intervals, providing employees with protective equipment like masks and gloves, single-use paper towels, readily available hand sanitizer, no refillable drinks and more.
“Restaurants have always been good at food safety issues, but this is even protecting ourselves from ourselves,” DePietro shares. “We need to open back up, but we can’t do it foolishly.”
The decision to reopen and the timing is out of her hands, she stresses, and points to the governor’s office for that decision.
“It’s such a fine line, isn’t it?” she says.
Williams says whether the governor is receptive to the idea of opening in May remains to be seen. He emphasizes that if the state isn’t ready to make the move due to public health concerns, he’d understand.
“You know what, if it is too soon, we will have to wait another two weeks. This is bigger than [that]” Williams says. “We’ve already lost enough money, if we have to wait another two weeks it won’t make a difference. If we got to wait until June for the public to feel comfortable to come in, that’s just a bottom line.”
Trying to Get By
One night, as COVID-19 spread throughout China and began to make international news, Lula Drake Wine Parlour owner Gardner was having dinner with his wife at home. The two were watching the news and he recalls the moment vividly.
“I looked at her and said, ‘This is going to change everything,’” he retells.
In the weeks that followed, the virus surged in Italy. Gardner, an asthmatic, called his tight-knit staff together for an impromptu meeting. He took a serious tone.
“‘I’m not trying to be Mr. Doomsday, but this is huge,’” he recalls telling them.
Gardner recommended they begin to save their money and that they avoid going out. When the virus did begin to spread in Columbia, Lula Drake was one of the first businesses to close its dining room.
Gardner temporarily closed the wine bar on March 15, two days before McMaster’s order officially came down, to prepare a takeout operation. On March 17, he launched takeout, doing retail sales of wine and beer, and selling food, too. Nine days later, he decided conditions were growing too severe to justify staying open, and he shuttered the entire business temporarily — though he continues to offer rare wines in a “cellar sale” through social media.
Restaurant owners were given forewarning with the conditions in Seattle and San Francisco, places with some of the earliest outbreaks in the country, says Bourbon and Black Rooster’s Niemi.
“If this did catch you off guard, it’s because you were barely paying attention,” he posits.
He says he began preparing his restaurants early on and put some money away to try and insulate them. But despite thinking ahead, they’re still bleeding money.
And for many, the only way to try and stem the losses is to pivot to takeout. Niemi gave takeout a shot for about two weeks and says it wasn’t feasible for him and that he found it unsafe as the virus continued to spread.
It’s a sentiment echoed by other restaurant owners.
“We’re closed down completely. We did takeout for a while over at Black Rooster and it just doesn’t make enough money to warrant doing it. It doesn’t even cover costs,” Niemi says.
Gardner says that takeout was ultimately unsustainable for his business model, and Barnes says Yesterdays’ sales were roughly cut in half when it lost dine-in service.
For some, the move has forced them to adapt quickly.
Barron, the War Mouth co-owner, says the restaurant had little online presence before the pandemic and focused mostly on sharing posts through its Facebook page. Once the pandemic hit, it rushed to put together a website with an online ordering system.
He says it found some success in selling family-style meals, like mac and cheese, and casseroles of smoked pork or squash.
“Those things right now are really moving for us,” Barron shares. “It’s funny, we’re trying to remind ourselves that we’re not a restaurant anymore, we’re trying to hang on so we can be a restaurant in the future.”
While restaurants have shuffled to try their hands at takeout, owners are also pursuing federal assistance through the CARE Act and its Paycheck Protection Program.
But some small restaurant owners in Columbia have yet to receive any of the initial $349 billion in funding. The initial funding ran out on April 16, just 14 days after the program launched, and Congress didn’t refund the program again until April 21.
On its face, the PPP seems like a godsend for restaurants. It provides federally backed eight-week loans to help rehire or retain employees, and if 75 percent is used on payroll costs, the loan is completely forgiven. But the details get complicated, drawing criticism from the hospitality industry.
The loan requires businesses to use it within eight weeks of receipt, but restaurants may not be able to reopen in time for that to be useful.
And Niemi suggests that if restaurants are opening under reduced occupancy that the program may be even more ineffective. He says that it’s a situation where the amount of staff needed to man his businesses would drop in half, negating some of the hiring the PPP allows.
“Say we get it two weeks before we’re allowed to open, we could literally get people back in the business, get everybody trained,” he hypothesizes. “However, this is the big ‘but’: … At the end of those eight weeks, if we were still operating at 50 percent capacity, I’ll have to lay those people off.”
The Independent Restaurant Coalition, with supporters in Columbia and key founders in Charleston, is lobbying for updates to the program that would better fit restaurants. It’s asking for Congress to extend the maximum loan term to three months, make the origination date of the funds the first day restaurants can legally open fully and to increase the repayment time to 10 years from two.
Beyond that, the loan has faced constant barbs since it was revealed that massive chains like Shake Shack and Ruth Chris’s, which has a Columbia location in the Vista, received large chunks of the funding and, per The Wall Street Journal, other publicly traded companies have received money, too.
Williams says Lizard’s Thicket received its PPP loan and that business at his restaurants has jumped about 10 percent since citizens began receiving recent direct stimulus checks from the federal government. He adds that despite concerns, the PPP should still be palatable, even if restaurants can’t hit the criteria to make the dispensations forgivable, saying it transforms into a 1 percent interest loan.
“You can’t get a one percent loan anywhere,” he states.
But Williams also acknowledges that the restaurant industry needs to — and is — advocating the federal government to update the timeframe for repaying it.
Despite the concerns and criticisms lobbed at the program, Gardner says that he isn’t in a position to avoid the money.
“We need the money, but the language is not such that we can actually use it in a way to help us,” he posits. “I’m trying to do everything that I can to increase my chances of survival ... I think it’s foolish to not pursue anything that you can, because no one knows how all this is going to work.”