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Legendary restaurants across SC cope with dwindling sales amid coronavirus closures

Fried chicken at Bertha's Kitchen (copy)

Steaming fried chicken on its way to be served at Bertha's Kitchen in 2017. The coronavirus pandemic and restrictions on gathering are hurting business at iconic restaurants in South Carolina. File/Staff

When a lethal disease is marauding, you think first of the elderly.

That’s true of restaurants as well as people, with South Carolinians fretting about the fate of beloved institutions under service restrictions related to the coronavirus. New rules shutting down dining rooms and limiting how many people can gather in one place have reduced daily revenue at countless S.C. restaurants to a sliver of pre-pandemic levels: Those restaurants which long ago attained legend status haven’t been spared.

“We’re about 40 percent off,” said Mark McManus, owner of The Beacon Drive-In (1946) in Spartanburg, which typically slices 3 tons of onions a week to satisfy the onion ring acolytes among its chili cheeseburger crowd. “We’re hanging in there and keeping the lights on, but it’s pretty significant.”

Industry leaders forecast as many as 8 in 10 restaurants won’t outlast the current crisis, leaving diners to hope the toll doesn’t include the fish camp they grew up visiting after church on Sundays, or the hot dog joint that’s always open after Friday night football games. At this point, with no fixed timeline for operations to return to normal or the economy to recover, restaurant owners were generally optimistic, but leery of making guarantees.

“It’s very slow, but we’re taking it one day a time,” said Julie Grant of Bertha’s Kitchen (1979) in North Charleston, named an America’s Classic by the James Beard Foundation. “This thing is spreading worldwide, and everyone is being cautious: We’re just trying to make sure everybody is healthy.”

One of the biggest problems that Bertha’s Kitchen has faced since city and state leaders started issuing orders to support social distancing is the line for its steam table buffet usually exceeds the 10 people allowed to gather in North Charleston. Grant said the restaurant this week reconfigured its layout so customer traffic now flows through the side door.

Over on James Island, fellow America’s classic winner Bowens Island Restaurant (1946) is trying to stick to its standard menu, save for its signature roasted oysters, which are challenging to package securely. “We’re kind of breaking even: We’re not making any money,” said owner Robert Barber, who when reached by The Post and Courier was shucking five bushels of surplus oysters to freeze for his family. He’s now looking around for the right kind of container to hold takeout oysters.

Barber’s container conundrum aside, many of the state’s most storied restaurants are well-positioned to survive on takeout sales, since they date back to the days before South Carolina legalized liquor by the drink, considered the financial linchpin of sit-down dining. A majority of them sell barbecue, fried chicken, fried seafood, sandwiches and simple side dishes compatible with a car trip home.

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“We’ve always had a pretty healthy takeout business, and whenever uncertain economic times are going on, our business typically benefits because we’re a much lower cost,” said Daniel Boan, co-owner of Drake’s Duck-In in Columbia (1907, according to promotional materials, but Boan warned the previous owner only gave him the date, not the evidence to prove it.) He estimated business at the chicken sandwich mainstay is off about 50 percent.

Lizard’s Thicket (1977) has closed just one of its 15 Columbia-area restaurants, but community relations manager Sara Krisnow stressed that’s because the company needed the kitchen to fulfill its catering contracts with the National Guard and Office of Emergency Management. She said demand for the chain’s home cooking, designed to mimic the pot roasts and green beans that women didn't have time to make after joining the workforce, has just shifted to curb and drive-thru lanes.

“What’s hurting the most is not being able to see our regular customers,” she said. “We have customers writing, saying, ‘I miss seeing Karen.’ People come to see us sometimes twice a day. But they’re picking up curbside and leaving tips.”

Prior to the dine-in ban, The Clock (1958) in Greer already conducted almost half of its meat-and-three business through a drive-thru window. Owner Jimmy Chulkas said he’s only had to lay off three teenagers and a server who volunteered after 25 years at the restaurant, saying, “I’ve got a husband at home and I don’t have a mortgage.”

He added, “They’ll gladly come back when this is all over with. America is the greatest country in the world, and we will come back.”

Still, every restaurant owner interviewed for this story agreed the current situation is unprecedented.

“With hurricanes, the two main things you worry about are how long you’re going to be closed and whether you lose your electricity,” Barber said. “We’ve never been faced with an indefinite closure in my lifetime, when we didn’t know when we would be back open again.”

Yet until the rules change, Bowens, along with all of the restaurants in this story, remains open for pickup orders. Barber encouraged people to “come out and get some fresh air,” as well as oysters, just as soon as he figures out how to box them.

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

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