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Charleston-area restaurant owners spooked by popularity of to-go menus suspend operations

Purlieu

Jordan Aldrich (from left), Christine Perry, Jeff Williams, and owner John Zucker work in Purlieu's kitchen on Wednesday, Dec. 6, 2017, in Charleston. Some restaurants have closed down takeout operations over concerns about the spread of the coronavirus. File/Staff 

When South Carolina restaurants last week were ordered to end dine-in service, restaurateurs worried that their takeout options wouldn’t attract many customers. But for some restaurant owners, the situation got scarier when they did.

Jackrabbit Filly in Park Circle on Sunday night posted to Instagram a black-and-white photo of 17 pickup tickets arrayed around a stainless steel table, accompanied by a message which read in part, “As the number of people infected by this virus grows, we feel it is best for the safety of our employees and guests” to close.

Owners Shuai and Corrie Wang put a stop to dine-in service one week before the state order was issued, citing concerns about the coronavirus’ spread. But the popularity of the 4-month-old restaurant’s to-go menu left the couple feeling panicky about the amount of contact among employees and between employees and guests. Those 17 pictured tickets, representing 17 opportunities for person-to-person transmission, all arrived within 15 minutes of Jackrabbit Filly opening for its final takeout dinner.

After a server ran back in from the pickup area saying a guest had inadvertently touched her hand, Corrie Wang said it was a relief to know they could afford to shut down for two weeks.

“I don't have to worry about being the first restaurant that has an employee come down with the virus or gets her whole team sick because they're working shoulder-to-shoulder with 10 other people a day,” she said.

She continued, “I worry we closed too early. But then I see what's happening in New York City and know that we did the right thing. For us.”

Charleston-area restaurant owners who have experimented with takeout and then withdrawn their offers emphasize that they made the decision which felt right for their teams and kitchen spaces. Even if takeout food is safe for a customer, health officials agree people working in close quarters are potentially at risk of contracting the virus.

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“Every restaurant is in a different position based on how they need to operate to get through this crisis,” said John Zucker, owner of Cru Café and Purlieu. Both restaurants on Tuesday ended carry-out service. “I feel strongly that I would not be in a good place mentally if our operations got someone sick. Our main objectives are, in order — keep employees, friends and customers safe; keep people employed and keep people fed throughout.”

Zucker said he plans to uphold those priorities, in that order.

“My personal thought right now is the sooner we all avoid contact with each other, the sooner we can get everyone back to work,” he said.

In the interim, he said, his company is distributing remaining perishables to employees: While his restaurants scaled back orders in anticipation of the government mandate, the catering division was left with $8,000 worth of ingredients delivered before event cancellations were a foregone conclusion. Additionally, Zucker is working to create an in-house worker relief fund.

At Jackrabbit Filly, the Wangs will continue to pay their employees at a reduced rate, bringing their weekly price of closure to about $10,000. If the closure stretches beyond early April, Corrie Wang said they’ll supplement their savings by selling “dumpling classes, bartending classes and tickets to a reopening party, along with other silly things.”

Until the restaurant reopens, its outgoing voicemail message is a closing announcement featuring the successive voices of different members of the Jackrabbit Filly crew. “It still makes me happy,” Wang said, adding that they nailed the recording in one take.

Reach Hanna Raskin at 843-937-5560 and follow her on Twitter @hannaraskin.

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