Nobody in the restaurant business has experience with anything exactly like the coronavirus pandemic. Countless restaurants owners have dealt with shattered economies, state-mandated closures, political upheaval, public health crises, employee shortages and supply-chain failures. Having to deal with them all at the same time, though, is a new development.
Still, even if the landscape is unique, its contours are recognizable, at least to those who have spent decades in the food-and-beverage business. Far removed from the trenches, where current restaurant owners are fighting off landlords and creditors, these longtime hospitality professionals can take stock of the entire scene and perhaps look beyond the bend in the distance. For that reason, The Post and Courier recently checked in with five of them.
These conversations have been condensed and edited for clarity.
Dick Elliott is the founder of Maverick Southern Kitchens, which in 2015 sold its restaurant properties to Hall Management Group, including SNOB, High Cotton and Old Village Post House. Elliott in 2016 ran to succeed Joe Riley as mayor; he soon thereafter relocated to the Upstate.
P&C: How have you been?
DE: Just to give you a quick thumbnail sketch, I ended up buying a business in the food-service equipment world. It was something I knew a bit about, but over the course of three and a half years, I determined it was impossible to make any money, so the last week or so, I’ve been closing it down. (My wife) Dayna is giving me one more chance to retire: She gave me a failing grade the first time around.
P&C: So to put yourself back in the restaurant business for just a minute, what would you be thinking about now if you were still running restaurants?
DE: Even before COVID came along, it was a struggle finding capable people. As 2019 progressed, virtually every restaurant in the fine dining world was having real trouble: You had to pay three to four dollars more an hour than you did four years ago for a line cook. Restaurant operators were already struggling because margins aren’t what people think they are; you’re fortunate if you can make a decent living.
P&C: Right. At the start of this crisis, Tom Colicchio predicted 80 percent of restaurants wouldn’t survive. We’re about four months into it, and most restaurants are still around. How much longer do you think they’ll last?
DE: The answer depends on who you are and what you are. My sense is the multi-unit people — The Indigo Road, the Hall Management Group, the Rick Erwin group — they’re larger and have a different kind of access to funding. When you take financing, you have to pay it back, but the point of that they’re going to be around to see it turn.
The onesies and twosies, I don’t see how they’re going to survive another six months. Some are getting help from landlords, some are getting help from lenders, but that all has an end to it. My best answer is I would look into learning another trade.
P&C: You said you just shut down your company because the numbers weren’t working out. Is that what restaurant owners should do now?
DE: I don’t know any restaurants right now that have their eye on how much their profit is. Their sole eye is on how much their accounts payable are and whether they can pay them, and most people cannot. It’s a total vicious cycle.
I am not optimistic. I’ve got grandchildren coming along now who are in their 20s. They’ve all taken a look at being in the restaurant world and they all decided they’re going to do something else. I don’t see how it gets turned around in the near term.
I’m somewhat stumbling because I don’t want to talk about politics, but I don’t know how you write a scenario more heartbreaking. It could have been different.
Roosevelt Brownlee, a native of Savannah, is a Vietnam War veteran who cooked on the front lines. After serving as a chef on the European jazz circuit, he returned to his hometown to work in its best restaurants; he retired from the Long Cove Club on Hilton Head Island to sell deviled crabs.
P&C: Have you ever seen anything like these past few months for restaurants?
RB: Oh wow, man, there is much going on. I like some of the things I see, but I feel for a lot of the employees, you know. Especially at the restaurants that are high-volume: They might suffer more than medium or small.
When I was in Vietnam, cooking in the field, dealing with C-Rations, the guys used to say, ‘Wow, Brownlee, you got that ingenuity to make something out of hardly nothing.’ And that’s how it’s been throughout my career, where you have to come up with something right on the spot, the way a lot of the restaurants, especially chef-owned restaurants, stepped up and changed the format.
Normally, in good times, you won’t find things like that, but it’s harder times. When I started off, you know, people would come to the house and say, ‘Oh, Roosevelt can cook.’ Then they’d go in the kitchen and open the cupboard and there’s hardly anything at all, but I’d create something.
A long time ago, back in Europe, when we didn’t have cash, the guys would go and buy a big cabbage and a piece of bacon and some rice. Five or six of us would eat and we’re full.
P&C: Have you been going out to restaurants much?
RB: I haven’t ventured out to any yet except for The Grey: I was invited to a private get-together on the outside. It was a just a little Juneteenth crab crack. It was really socially distant; people with masks on until it was time to eat.
Other than that, I’ve ordered a few little things, but I’m halfway skeptical about sitting down to eat. When (social distancing) becomes mandatory, maybe I’ll venture to sit down and eat.
At The Grey, she had it set up nicely with the tables. I mean, the person that was across from me was at least 5 feet away on the opposite side and only I think three of us on each side. Everybody had space.
Back in the day, there was some place on the waterfront in Tybee we used to go and eat the crabs and you were really bunched up, shoulder to shoulder, and they threw all the crabs on the table. I think we’re going to find some better ways.
P&C: You talked about how ingenuity and creativity is so important at a time like this. What other skills would be helpful to restaurants now?
RB: You know, it makes me so happy when someone says that they like your stuff because it’s consistent.
I worked downtown at Soho; it specialized in lunch. I was at the counter because we had just got this new coffee stuff from New York. I was bent down and heard two ladies talking, and one of them said, ‘I love eating at Soho because in six months that quiche is going to taste the same way.’ I popped my head up!
We stressed you have to keep on point. If you have a business, you’re going to want consistency.
Robert Stehling started his restaurant career in the dish pit of Chapel Hill’s legendary Crook’s Corner. He cooked in New York City before opening Hominy Grill in 1996. Stehling last spring closed the beloved restaurant.
P&C: It seems like you may have closed at the right time.
RS: Thank goodness I’m not still in it, or at least not carrying Hominy through it. It’s tough going, obviously, and it’s hard without real guidance. Restaurants aren’t funded well enough to just sit it out, which would feel like the wise thing to do, but that’s not an option.
I was in New York in the '80s when the AIDS epidemic was there. It was difficult to work on a staff and know people were going to get sick and not be around.
There doesn’t seem to be that feeling yet, but I worry. Everyone likes to refer to the staff as a family: That’s really hard you’re putting people in harm’s way.
P&C: What would you have done if you were still running Hominy?
RS: Assuming I couldn’t stay closed, you would be trying to make all this work, but you can’t control employees beyond your doors, so that’s difficult. And you can’t control the customers. It’s not clear what your liability is going to end up being.
I don’t know how I’d be dealing with Hominy. From what I understand, I would have to hire extra people: a safety manager checking everybody off and two sets of staff so if someone gets sick you can continue to operate, you know, the A-team, the B-team.
These small businesses are putting everything they have into getting going, but Charleston is built on tourists, and if that’s not happening, you’re not making the revenue, so there’s going to be a lot of shakeout.
On the other hand, restaurants have always been risky businesses. How many of those 80 percent were not going to make it anyhow? Do we blame the pandemic or do we blame the businesses?
P&C: Have you been going to restaurants?
RS: No, not at all. I don’t feel that comfortable with it. I long to fly to New Orleans and disappear for 10 days and crawl back fat and happy, but I’m not willing to do that in this situation. Even common sense has gotten so muddled.
Charlotte Jenkins was the owner of the hugely popular Gullah Cuisine, which in 2014 closed after operating in Mount Pleasant for 17 years. Formerly a student in Johnson & Wales University’s culinary program, Jenkins is the author of Gullah Cuisine: By Land and By Sea.
P&C: I’ve been thinking about you, because one of the last events on my calendar before everything was canceled was your talk at the Historic Charleston Foundation.
CJ: Yes, my book is back out. It’s been selling. We had a lot of things scheduled, but with the pandemic, everything stops. I did do a virtual with the Charleston library last Thursday and it went very well.
P&C: If you were still in the restaurant business, how would you have handled the pandemic?
CJ: Well, I would have done the takeouts and the catering, like a weekly meal, you know. Food for families, I would promote that.
P&C: How do you think it’s going to work out for restaurants?
CJ: I think it’s really kind of risky for the restaurant owners. Number one, you’ve got different categories. You got owners who have investors and good capital: They’ll make it. They’ll do OK.
But with me being in business, I would not have made it. I’m a black female and you know I’m not going to be able to get no loan, because they don’t really give loans to restaurants. Other small restaurants, especially if the rent is high, they’re not going to make it.
P&C: Do you think those places ought to close right away?
CJ: I would suggest they do whatever they can to make money. You really have to think about, ‘How can I take this restaurant and make money with the door closed?’
P&C: Have you been going to restaurants?
CJ: No. I went once. I was invited by my younger brother: He invited me and my sister to a place in Mount Pleasant. We sat out in the yard and we practiced social distancing. I didn’t go inside.
A lifelong South Carolinian, Philip Bardin in the late-1980s earned national acclaim as chef of The Old Post Office on Edisto Island. He was most recently involved with the opening of Ella & Ollie’s.
P&C: When you look at what’s happening with restaurants now, where does your mind go first?
PB: Well, first of all, I’m surprised they didn’t think anything like this would happen sooner. We deal with hurricanes, and I remember the SARS thing. People should have had plans in place. ... Everyone’s going through the same thing, and it’s a bad thing, and I feel for them, but they need to get imaginative.
There are some people that are doing it that are amazing. Look at that crazy Adam Randall, (owner of The CODFather.) He’s not a good friend of mine, but the owners are going to have to be more like him. (He) built his own bar!
Owners are going to have to do more these days. Those monthlong vacations, they’re gone. This could go on for two years, so you have to make adjustments.
P&C: What kind of adjustments?
PB: Home delivery. It’s easy: They’ve all got sous vide, and chances are they’re on a first name basis with UPS. I begged a couple of people to do that and they looked at me like I was crazy. They might be right, but not for that reason.
I called three people yesterday and I said, ‘If l gave you any amount of money in the current environment, how would you spend it?’ They were so confused.
The obvious move is to be a big fish in a small pond: The bigger staff you have, you’re going to have more problems. What’s really hard to find right now is a romantic table: You can get that at a smaller place.
A more bizarre thing I could mention: In the ‘80s, with the hurricanes, I had other places (picked out). I found two post offices, one in Apalachicola and one in the mountains. Every 30-40 days, I would check in with Realtors.
P&C: You’d just relocate the restaurant to another town?
PB: Well, yeah, you got to. Another thing is to keep a journal of what goes on every day. A handwritten journal: Don’t put it on the computer. Take time to sit down and write. Nobody does that anymore.