Restaurant Rich Charleston Offers Clues to Post-Pandemic Future of Industry

June 1, 2020 by Dan McCue
High Cotton in Charleston, South Carolina. (Photo by Dan McCue)

CHARLESTON, S.C. – It wasn’t exactly a typical Friday night in what could arguably be described as the “foodie district” of Charleston, South Carolina. But it was something of a barometer of how restaurants are fighting to come back from the coronavirus outbreak.

Up and down East Bay Street, in the stretch from the old U.S. Customs House to Broad Street, many of the biggest names in Lowcountry dining — Slightly North of Broad, Blossom and Magnolia’s — had set out tables on sidewalks outside their front doors.

Crisply attired wait staff, all wearing masks, made their way quickly between those dining outside and those who preferred the widely set apart tables inside.

And the diners came in waves of fours and fives and sixes, most clearly enjoying their first night out in a long time.

Much has been written about whether the local restaurants and other small businesses across the country will ever truly bounce back from 10 weeks of stay-at-home orders and social distancing; judging by this night at least, the answer would be a resounding yes.

Not that there isn’t a long way to go.

At High Cotton, a server named Alesha, her eyes lively above a black mask, greeted diners by “first explaining the steps we’re taking to take care of you” before moving on to a discussion of the menu and the night’s few specials.

“You’ll notice all of the staff is wearing masks,” she said.

“And we’re all carrying our own personal bottles of hand sanitizer,” she continued, taking a small brown bottle from a pocket.

“Our tables are all set six-feet apart and you’ll notice we set up sanitation stations on some tables, with sanitizer and wipes that you should feel free to use,” she added.

It was then that she offered up menus, plan white sheets instead of High Cotton usual presentation, which she assured us would be thrown away after they were used — unless diners wanted to keep them as souvenirs.

Throughout the evening, if something needed to be boxed to take home, Alesha asked whether diners wanted her to box the item or preferred doing it themselves. Any time she was asked to box something, she pulled on latex gloves before taking the dish away.

Later, the restaurant’s sommelier filled in some of the details of the weeks that had just passed.

After the pandemic began spreading across the nation in mid-February, High Cotton closed down for a month, and then, for two weeks, was only open for take-out.

A long planned renovation closed the kitchen for a week after that, and by the time it was done, the restaurant was allowed to serve both take out and al fresco dining. A short time after that, the lifting of some restrictions on indoor dining allowed High Cotton to finally reopen its dining room and bar — pursuant to ongoing social distancing and other guidelines.

In many respects, High Cotton is one of the good luck stories in a city whose restaurants helped make it a favorite foodies destination.

Several blocks away, on Upper King Street, a pair of restaurants with a shared kitchen were forced to shut down that same Friday, after one of its back-of-house employees tested positive for the novel coronavirus.

As a result, the 14 other employees of Bourbon and Bubbles, a venue offering customers $4,900 liquor lockers for rental to store their favorite labels, and Mesu’s 14, a Mexican and sushi restaurant, were asked to self-quarantine while they were professionally cleaned and sanitized.

It should be noted here that several of the city’s restaurants were severely damaged by protests that turned violent this past Saturday, causing them to close until the necessary repairs can be made.

Mask or No Mask? Opinions Vary

Since May 1, when S.C. Gov. Henry McMaster announced he was loosening restrictions on inside dining, restaurant owners across the state have been forced to reckon with how best to serve their customers.

Some jumped at the chance to reopen their dining rooms at half capacity, while others, particularly black-owned independent restaurants, were slower to reopen in light of the fact that the African-American community has been disproportionately affected by the coronavirus.

A recent study found black Americans represent 13.4% of the U.S. population, but 60% of COVID-19 deaths, a discrepancy which researchers have attributed to social conditions and long standing institutional racism.

At least one recent study found that of those African-American owned restaurants that offered indoor seating before the pandemic, as many as 70% continue to offer only take out service weeks after they could start reopening their dining rooms.

One of the most reliable sources of restaurant information in the city, at the height of pandemic and now, has been a Facebook group called Lowcountry Eat Out!

Although the group aims to support the recovering restaurant community — its page Monday featured numerous pictures of volunteers helping with the clean up after Saturday night’s downtown riot — it temporarily — and completely unintentionally — found itself at the epicenter of a heated debate over mask and glove requirements for patrons and servers.

Of the 31 states which have issued reopening plans for restaurants, South Carolina is one of just 11 which hasn’t mandated masks for food-and-beverage employees.

Instead the guidelines say that “Employees should be allowed to wear gloves and masks if they so desire, even in front-of-the-house positions and in the restaurant environments when a six-foot social distancing area in the kitchen and front counter area would be difficult to maintain.”

The S.C. Restaurant and Lodging Association endorsed the state guidelines on face coverings and other aspects of reopening and advised restaurants to evaluate their business models to ensure employee and guest safety when deciding the best date to reopen. 

“We are also extremely grateful for the fact that [the governor’s] disciplined, safe approach is largely industry-driven and incorporates guidelines and regulations from all appropriate agencies and businesses. 

“We look forward to participating in – and carefully monitoring – this reopening phase,” the industry group said.

But so bad did the back and forth over the face mask issue get on the Lowcountry Eat Out! page, that the group’s founder, Christine England, whose husband is executive chef of Tavern & Table on Shem Creek in nearby Mount Pleasant, considered shutting down the site before deciding to impose some more detailed rules instead.

She announced them via Facebook live, and the number one rule was that visitors take the mask and glove debate elsewhere.

In a follow-up post, England reminded group members that “just like restaurants can’t go back to the way it was before, we as guests cannot expect or demand that either.

“There is a new norm for right now it is called planning,” she said. “Similar to when restaurants only provided take-out and delivery, you would plan your week, your grocery shopping and what nights you would have take-out … you now have to plan your dining experience.

“Bravo to every restaurant who has been doing their best, keeping all guests and staff equally safe and following guidelines,” she said in a shout out to the restaurant community.

“If you’re going to comment ‘How do we eat with a mask on?’ or ‘Stay home if you don’t like it,’ there are like 3 million COVID groups where you can do that,” she continued. “The goal of this group is to support restaurants.”

New data released by OpenTable suggests large numbers of South Carolinians share her enthusiasm.

Since mid-February, the restaurant reservation service has compiled and shared state-by-state figures showing the percentage decline in year-over-year seated diners.

As of Sunday, restaurants in the vast majority of states where some reopening has been allowed report their average daily customer traffic is still down more than 75% over this time last year — and restaurants in former coronavirus hotspots like New York and Washington , D.C., say their rate of customer traffic is down by an even more staggering 98.88% and 92.66%, respectively.

South Carolina, by comparison, is about in the middle of the pack, reporting its daily restaurant customer traffic is down 64.4% compared to this time last year.

So far, the best recovery in the nation’s daily restaurant customer traffic is occurring in Rhode Island (down just 41.94% compared to last year), Alabama (down 50.65%), Oklahoma (down 53.74%) and Texas, (down 58.94%).

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