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Fear of devastating second wave drives downtown Charleston bar owner out of the business

Paul Yellin

Paul Yellin, owner of Cane Rhum Bar, makes coquito according to Don Q's recipe on Tuesday, December 17, 2019. File/Lauren Petracca/Staff

The owner of a downtown Charleston bar which fans hoped would soon be slinging daiquiris again has closed the location permanently, saying he wanted to retreat before a second wave of COVID-19 overwhelms the industry.

“People will come out now,” Cane Rhum Bar’s Paul Yellin says of the pent-up demand for on-premise drinking. But he’s not sure people will continue to patronize bars and restaurants if the number of coronavirus cases climbs, or if the measures taken to prevent the spread erode the fun of going out.

Under those circumstances, he says, a neighborhood bar can’t last.

“The business model was that people could rub elbows,” Yellin says. “What people came for was to sit and talk and schmooze and flirt. That’s done for a while: To have a bar with people packed in, you’re not going to hear that vibe for a minute.”

Yellin was forced to reckon with business survival math as his next insurance payment came due. Because he has a liquor license, a collection of expensive rums and liability related to the customers who drink it, his insurance costs are significantly higher than those borne by, say, a sandwich shop owner. His insurance company wanted payment in full this week, while his landlord had proposed he pay half of the rent.

“Without selling drinks on Friday and Saturday night, I can’t do it,” says Yellin, who was up all night throwing up before finalizing his decision. “That’s why I’m trying to get out early.”

Although Yellin told followers on Facebook that the bar could reappear elsewhere, he said in a phone interview that he doesn't have any immediate plans to open another Cane. He's been watching fellow chefs experiment with food trucks and podcasts, and is still trying to figure out his best professional strategy after taking a break.  

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Cane Rhum Bar in 2016 opened at the East Bay Street address long associated with the legendary dive bar Big John’s.

“There was not a week that went by that some Citadel cadet or a gray-haired guy would come in with his mouth open and say, ‘Oh my God, this was Big John’s?” Yellin says of the response to the bright Caribbean décor and menu of sophisticated rum drinks.

Only a few of them were disappointed, Yellin says. He found people appreciated “that it truly did not feel like a Charleston bar, and it didn’t feel like Charleston.”

Cane is the second prominent downtown Charleston restaurant owned by an entrepreneur of African descent to close during the current crisis: Kenyatta McNeil last month shut Nana’s Seafood & Soul

Yellin stresses that the challenges he faced weren’t unique to his establishment.

“Everything that would have been, it dried up,” he says. “I’m not special. Look at this weather; we would have had weddings rolling down the street. This would have been an incredible season for everyone.”

He continues, “I don’t want to go. I don’t want to be in this situation. But I feel sorry for everyone who’s going to follow.”

And Yellin worries there will be many who fall into that group. As he watches customers start to return to restaurants and bars like his, he says he hopes boredom doesn’t get the best of common sense.

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

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