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The week that rocked Charleston restaurants: Reflections from those who weathered closures

Everything seemed to happen so fast, and yet the week dragged on forever.

Last week was the most momentous single week anyone involved in the Charleston area food-and-beverage sector could remember, starting with restaurateurs making hard decisions about whether to stay open in the face of the coronavirus threat and ending with thousands of hospitality workers applying for unemployment.

In between, the previously unthinkable happened. On the heels of Gov. Henry McMaster ordering restaurants across the state to close their dining rooms, FIG, one of the most acclaimed restaurants in the country, asked for money via GoFundMe, an online site more commonly associated with broken legs and amateur baseball teams’ dreams. Michael Shemtov, owner of Butcher & Bee, announced he didn’t intend to give the state its sales tax.

Prospects for the industry are bleak, here and elsewhere. Restaurants are energetically peddling takeout specials and loyal patrons are trustingly buying up gift cards, but the devastating force of social restructuring is relentless: Restaurateurs suddenly feel lucky if they can sell 20 percent of what they would have sold before the dine-in ban went into effect.

Tom Colicchio, a longtime industry insider best known across the country for hosting "Top Chef," last week predicted 75 percent of restaurants won’t reopen after the pandemic. A number of fellow restaurant owners wondered if he was being overly optimistic.

But what did the week look like from the inside? The Post and Courier on Friday checked in with a few area food-and-beverage professionals to learn how their weeks unfolded.

Peter Woodman's employees

Peter Woodman, owner of Crave, Woodward Tavern and The Mill Street Tavern, last week, "tried to capture a few candid shots over the past week to illustrate how brutal and devastating this whole thing has been." (Provided)

THE FARMER: The great-grandson of enslaved South Carolinians, Joseph Fields is a third-generation landowner on Johns Island; he and his wife Helen farm organically on 50 acres.

“Everything got slow. Everything got slow in this town. Nobody’s buying nothing. They don’t know; we don’t know. We have collards, cabbage, broccoli and kale right now; we be planting everything else and hope everything sells when it gets ready.”

THE PUBLICIST: Kerry Welch is a senior account director at South City PR, a Charleston firm which represents restaurants across the South. Its local clients include The Darling Oyster Bar, Swig & Swine, Purlieu and Cru Cafe.

“I think we realized it was going to be a thing after (the Charleston) Wine + Food (Festival). We were all standing around in that blissful sense, saying, ‘Oh, there’s that corona thing happening.’ And then you started to hear more and more about major events getting canceled, and that’s when we started to talk to everybody individually to see what their plan of action was. Some people felt like, ‘We’re going to ride this out. It’s going to be fine. We might have to change hours.’

"The stopping of the dining-in was the pivotal moment. That was huge.

"We’re taking each restaurant case-by-case and trying to provide a little bit of what they’re known for: Like, The Darling is completely shut down because they’re not known as a takeout place. We just try to be a sounding board for our clients.

"Obviously right now, media is our most powerful tool. This next coming week, people are going to be really bored of reading everything corona-based. They’ll need lighthearted news like cocktails to make at home and chef tips and recipes to make you feel like you are in the restaurant.

"We’re all just trying to figure out a way to survive. It’s such a huge hit for everyone. Without crying, you have to just pour yourself a big glass of wine and know we’ll get through it.”

Peter Woodman's employees

"I for one will never ever ever forget the look on some of the faces of our people," restaurateur Peter Woodman says. (Provided)

THE OWNER: William Chan last year opened King Claw, a Cajun seafood boil house in West Ashley. He also runs hibachi takeout restaurants in the Atlanta area.

“We knew we were going to have to close sooner or later, because in Georgia it was spreading even faster. Obviously, we cut staff, but we’re not laying off as much as other restaurants are: I’m having a full staff in kitchen so when all this is over, I won’t struggle to find skilled employees.

"Now we’re doing everything we can to pay rent. We actually got some help from the advertising people who gave us free digital billboards all over Charleston. Basically, we have contracts with these guys already, so it’s like a trade, like, ‘Yeah, please we’re doing this for you, so you’ve still got to keep paying us.’ It’s smart, man.

"We were sitting in the office brainstorming, and my person in marketing said we have like 10-12 cases of toilet paper sitting around, so we should give that out with orders. We posted it on Facebook and stuff and it’s getting decent feedback. I think some were kind of shocked, but we’ve got no choice.

"Servers are rotating taking to-go orders. I still encourage them to file for unemployment and I’m helping them file. At the end of the day, they’ve got rent to pay and I’ve got rent to pay.”

THE MANAGER: Tyler Wolters is the bar manager and head bartender at LowLife Bar on Folly Beach. LowLife had planned to host its second annual Folly Beach Classic cocktail competition last Monday.

“It is absolutely crazy how quickly all of this happened. I was adding shifts, getting ready to move into the busy season. We were hiring and training. And less than a week later, my entire staff is laid off. My job went from running a bar to helping people file for unemployment.

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"The most surreal thing of all was how busy Folly was yesterday. The traffic was backed up to the Harris Teeter on Folly Road. People were coming out to Folly like nothing was happening. The beach was a party scene.

"We would have crushed it yesterday, but we weren't allowed to open our doors. Take-out and delivery only. I don’t know if they’re not following the news or what, but some people seemed surprised that they couldn’t get a drink. They say they’re going to go somewhere else, and we say, ‘Well, OK.’

"We've been doing our best to keep the doors open, and everybody is trying to stay optimistic, but a lot of our staff is paycheck to paycheck. You can see it in everyone's faces. They're scared. Who knows when we can reopen and start making money again?”

THE CHEF: Kevin Greene is the chef-owner of ChuckTown Mobile Seafood and Cafe in North Charleston. After four years on Dorchester Road, Greene last year relocated to another space on the same street so he could offer more dine-in seating.

“Things started to change on Tuesday. Ironically, Monday was one of my best Mondays. Tuesday, I had a 35 percent drop; Wednesday was about a 60 percent drop in business. Thursday it climbed back up to a 20 percent drop, and today we recovered very well. So I’m thinking what took place is people are not shopping as much because they’ve gotten the items they need to be prepared in case they all get confined to their homes. Today may also be a payday for people.

"In addition to that, I was able to find crabs, so the sale of my garlic crabs went through the roof. This time of the year, right after the cold breaks, they’re setting their shells and crabs are very, very scarce: Almost not able to be found. I’m getting them from Virginia: We make our own sauce and let the crab marinate in the butter garlic sauce, and my price point is the lowest price point in Charleston.

"I actually saw an article in USA Today, right to the left of the story about Kobe Bryant, saying they were speeding up trying to find an antidote, but I guess nobody noticed it because everyone was talking about Kobe’s death. I was doing great business up until Tuesday.

"Another thing that hurt me a lot is I do a lot of festivals with the food truck and that stopped completely on Thursday.

"I was in the process of getting prices to put up a menu board and speaker system for my drive-thru. I was going to put that up sometime next year. But I don’t know what’s going to take place right now. I’m hearing rumors of a possible shutdown, and hearing rumors like that slows us down from making purchases.

"I hope everything gets back to normal. I pray everyone continues to maintain safe practices, and government does what's right for all and not just for a few."

Peter Woodman's employees

"Restaurant owners are more than likely facing eviction, foreclosure and bankruptcy when all the publicity dies down," Woodman says. (Provided)

THE BARTENDER: Keely Jackson is a bartender at The Kiawah Island Club. She moved to South Carolina last year from Asheville., N.C., where she remodeled homes for a living.

"Monday was a regular day at The B-Liner: There were plenty of people there. Then Monday night, we realized everything was going to be shut down, so I stayed at the bar pretty late to get rid of anything we weren’t going to use and recycle as much as could.

"Then I was off Tuesday and Wednesday. I came in Thursday to help clean the bar out and my manager was like, ‘You used to be a painter and a plumber. Take this time now to take pictures around the club of things you could implement if we get closed.’  The phones got slammed so hard with to-go orders I took pictures for like 20 minutes

"I took pictures at the beach. Because of the type of wood we use, the salt and the sun just eat it up, so there’s a lot of band boards and trim that need to be sanded down and repainted;  people come out with carts and nick columns or walls, so there’s caulking and sanding and painting to keep people busy for a month. Three weekends ago, we did 600 covers in a weekend, and facility maintenance can’t come in and touch up the trim.

"It hasn’t slowed down enough yet to grab people to do painting projects. Like last night, The B-Liner did 92 covers in takeout orders. Everybody on the island wants to-go. So it still feels like the restaurant is busy, but just in a completely different way.”

THE DELIVERY DRIVER: Joy Kirven is a driver for Uber Eats. She signed on with the company just a few weeks before an executive order restricted restaurants across South Carolina to takeout and pick-up orders.

"I’ve been going a lot to Ladles, both locations; Moe’s; two location of Five Guys and maybe a couple of Chipotles. I’ve noticed it’s a lot easier to drive around downtown because the traffic is hardly there.

"I’m staying busy. I was thinking, ‘Uh oh, are Uber drivers going to jump into this?’ I was afraid there was going to be an onslaught of people, but it’s as steady as ever. Mainly millennials are really 90 percent of what I’m delivering. The week before it was apartment buildings and stuff, but this last week was doctor’s offices. I think I went to three doctor’s offices one day.

"One thing I’ve started to think about is how customers see me. I do a little more grooming; a little whimsical jewelry or whatever, and I wash down my car before I leave with a garden hose. My car is 16 years old, and I go in and clean out all the junk, all the clutter. Also, I’ve got a purple lanyard around my neck with a little bottle of sanitizer to say, ‘Look, folks, I’m in it with you.’

"I have to remind myself to keep my distance when I hand off food: We’ve had to reinvent our social norms of personal space. I have this big insulated cheerful purple Clemson bag, and I keep that between me and them.

"Uber has a wonderful app, with lots of support, but as far as saying, ‘Make sure you hand off or step out,’ they really haven’t: I think they should be doing a little more, but it’s just me thinking of the end result.

"One guy came around from his backyard and just stood there and said, ‘I apologize, but I’m a physician, and I am going to stand back here.’ Mostly it’s just going to the door and saying, ‘Here you go.’ You do your best.

"We’re doing gestures to give appearance that everything is OK, nothing’s changed, but in the back of your mind, you know. We’re all kind of under stress. We have this underlying stress, you know."

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

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