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Summerville restaurants endured devastating second quarter

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On the heels of the nation’s sharpest economic decline since the Great Depression, local restaurant owners say they are still dealing with a lot of uncertainty.

Those early weeks in March and April were the hardest on Summerville’s restaurants as indoor dining stopped temporarily in an effort to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus which has killed more than 157,000 Americans.

In the months since, operators have adapted to changing regulations and new servicing systems. Many restaurant owners have invested in technology that provides customers with contact-less order and payment options. Kitchens have filled with to-go boxes and supplies as restaurants shifted to curbside pickup and delivery only.

Last month the Commerce Department revealed that the gross domestic product- the broadest measure of economic activity- fell at a rate of 32.9 percent in the second quarter as restaurants and stores shuttered due to the coronavirus pandemic. According to data from Yelp, roughly 16,000 American restaurants have closed permanently due to economic strain caused by the novel coronavirus pandemic.

In Summerville, three restaurant owners shared what they are doing to keep their businesses afloat through the pandemic.

Shuckin’ Shack Oyster Bar

During the Great Recession of 2008, Jason Thorpe witnessed a 30 percent loss in revenue in the restaurant business. As someone who has devoted his entire career to the restaurant industry, Thorpe has learned how to bounce back from an economic downturn. However, this year he witnessed the worst yet.

Due to the novel coronavirus pandemic, he saw revenue drop by 90 percent at his downtown Summerville restaurant, the Summerville Shuckin’ Shack Oyster Bar.

When South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster closed dine-in service for restaurants and bars in late March, Thorpe quickly transitioned to offer meals to-go or by delivery.

“We stayed open and did take out for two or three weeks; we had staff that wanted to stay on and it was a dynamic situation at that time,” Thorpe said. “But I think it will eventually help us in the long run that we were able to stay open.”

The past four months have been full of ups and downs but Thorpe said he’s come to expect that from the restaurant industry.

“In the restaurant business there is something new everyday — you change and evolve with what is happening,” Thorpe said.

After dine-in services resumed in May, Thorpe was allowed to open the inside of the casual dining restaurant to 50 percent capacity. All servers wear masks and customers are required to wear one for much of their time inside the building.

Early in the pandemic Thorpe secured assistance from the Payroll Protection Program so that he could keep his staff intact but some employees were not able to return to work due to preexisting health conditions that might have made them more susceptible to serious complications from COVID-19.

Even after hiring new employees, staffing remains difficult because on any given day if an employee shows any symptoms that might be COVID-19, they stay home until they can get a test.

“That is our biggest hurdle right now,” Thorpe said. “We have customers but staffing is a challenge.”

Business is still down 15 percent compared to last year, Thorpe said. He noted that there have been newer restaurants to open up nearby but he also believes cancellations of annual events and festivals have meant less foot traffic in the downtown area.

Located at 114 Central Ave., the Shuckin’ Shack Oyster Bar typically benefits from all of the downtown activities including the Summerville Farmers Market, Third Thursdays and the annual Flowertown Festival.

Despite the grim reality of COVID-19 and the recent economic decline, Thorpe remains optimistic. He is working toward opening two more Shuckin’ Shack locations in South Carolina.

“I feel that we are going to pull through this — we always do,” Thorpe said. “Business comes back, it might take a while but I think it will be back to where it was and we will be growing again.”

Madres Mexican Restaurant

Sisters Mariana Godinez LaRoche and Karen Godinez Butler who together opened Madres Mexican Restaurant last year, were forced to cancel the one-year anniversary celebration they had scheduled for March 28. Instead of commemorating the date that would have marked one year since they opened up their family restaurant for business at 100 Bacons Bridge Road, Unit C, LaRoche and Butler found themselves scrambling to adapt to new procedures for online ordering, curbside pick-up and meal delivery through door dash.

“It has been a huge adjustment but I think we’ve been doing okay as far as adapting to whatever we can do to survive in this time,” Butler said.

Fortunately Madres had already been offering online ordering prior to the pandemic, so that part was set up, Butler added. She quickly secured assistance from the Payroll Protection Program so that her staff members would continue to be paid.

“We managed to keep all of the staff by finding new positions for them and working with whatever we had; we were blessed,” Butler said.

She credits community support for keeping her business alive during a very rough few months.

Indoor dining is currently offered at 50 percent capacity, however Butler said she is still encouraging customers to opt for delivery, to-go, or curbside pickup because those options allow for minimal contact.

“We want to do whatever makes the customers feel comfortable,” Butler said.

The sisters recently updated their restaurant’s website to make online ordering even more convenient. The new changes will make it possible for customers to scan QR code and order from their phones while inside the dining room.

While business has slowly picked back up, Butler said she wouldn’t use the word “recovery,” just yet because she fears that if new cases do not begin to slow down, then there might be another economic shutdown.

“Everything right now is so unsure,” Butler said.

Eva’s On Main

Summerville’s iconic hometown restaurant, Eva’s On Main, is known for its popular southern comfort food including farmers omelets or country fried steak. Those menu favorites have been difficult to prepare in recent months due to shortages in the supply chain and the rising cost of food.

Due to the coronavirus pandemic, prices have climbed for groceries — most notably for meat, poultry, fish and eggs.

Because the restaurant chefs cook with fresh food, rather than frozen, many of the items needed fail to be delivered due to a shortage. As a consequence, owner Ray Easler is sent on a last minute quest for staple ingredients.

Co-owner Whitney Easler said the insecure availability has impacted their menu and left the chefs scrambling to change the daily specials short notice. In addition, Easler said the shortage means that she is not able to be as creative as she would like with the menu.

“Before the virus we would try new specials but we’ve had to stop adding upscale or complicated menu items because of lack of availability of food and frankly trying not to put too much pressure on the kitchen to prepare a menu item that is foreign,” Easler said.

As far as business goes, things have been up and down. Easler said they have increased take out and curbside pickup service and made extra efforts to be sure customers know that is available.

Due to staffing challenges the restaurant cut back on its hours- opening at 9 a.m. instead of 6:30 a.m. Easler said she was disappointed by that but it was necessary in order to cut overhead costs. She also had to close one day a week in order to give her staff a day off.

Through all of the obstacles, Easler said she has been very grateful for the customers who have continued to support their hometown restaurant.

“We’ve been very fortunate that we have a loyal following — that’s really what has helped us to stay open,” Easler said.

Her customers have been very understanding and supportive of new safety measures, Easler said.

Before the town approved a local ordinance requiring individuals to wear masks, customers would wear them sporadically while in the restaurant but after the ordinance, every single customer has worn one.

“We’re doing all the things we can in terms of trying to keep our customers safe and our staff safe,” Easler said. “Most of our customers are very supportive of our efforts, we haven’t had any pushback about dining at half capacity. People have been patient and understanding.”

Easler has appreciated that change and said that she also is proud of her staff members for wearing masks throughout their entire shift — which is not always easy.

“Wearing masks and gloves is unpleasant for a whole shift but they all do it with a positive attitude,” Easler said. “It means the world to me to know we have a great team that works with us through difficult situations and they absolutely shine.”

Fortunately Eva’s on Main has not had to close temporarily due to any employees contracting COVID-19.

Easler said she considers her team to be very fortunate but she also said since the very beginning she has made sure her staff members are well informed about how the virus spreads.

“We really have worked hard in communicating to our staff- especially the younger ones — so that they are hopefully doing the right thing when they are not here,” Easler said. “They are family to us, not just employees.”

In July revenue was down 50 percent compared to last year, Easler said the restaurant is not yet making a profit, but progress has been made since March.

“We are holding our own and that’s the key to riding this thing out,” Easler said.