Restaurants and bars impacted by shutdown adapt, hold on, pray they can get through crisis
By MINDY LUCAS
It came like a thunderclap on a clear, blue-sky day.
At 4:30 p.m. on Tuesday, March 17, as those in the restaurant and bar business were preparing for the dinner shift or happy hour, S.C. Gov. Henry McMaster ordered all bars and restaurants to close their in-house dining services to combat the coronavirus outbreak.
And the closures were to begin the next day.
“It was a big hit,” said Jennifer Mader, who manages Hearth Wood Fire Pizza, along with Plums and Saltus River Grill in Beaufort. “We’re all feeling hit.”
Mader said while she had a feeling the order was coming, and had told her staff on Tuesday they were “gearing up,” it still didn’t make things any easier when it came.
“It’s just, it’s hard,” she said struggling for words. The restaurant has scrambled to adjust to take-out and curbside service.
“You don’t know what to expect. You just pray that you have what it takes to push through it and have the faith to get through this time,” she said.
Down the street at Hemingway’s Bistro, owner Kanani Robinson said she was at the bar when she heard about the governor’s order. One of Beaufort’s most popular bars for locals as well as tourists, Hemingway’s offers a regular lunch service but is known as a happy hour and late-night drink spot.
“We were hoping we could do to-go food and take-out boxes and have not more than 10 people out on the patio,” she said.
But as she and others would soon learn, the mandate stated no onsite dining service – whether indoors or out. After Robinson realized it wouldn’t be financially feasible to stay open just for to-go orders, she made the hard decision to close the door on a place famous for never closing.
After Irma flooded the bar in 2017, a photo taken of a still-opened “Hemis” went viral and was shared countless times after.
The photo – which captured the moment paddle boarders literally floated through the bar’s only door as regulars sat on bar stools nursing beers, seemingly oblivious to water lapping just inches below their feet – seemed to resonate for a town not used to folding in the face of adversity.
“I still Google that picture,” Robinson said.
The race to adapt
While Tuesday’s order effectively shuttered restaurants to dine-in service, it did not prohibit take-out, curbside pickup or delivery options.
“It is allowed and recommended,” McMaster said at the press conference, adding that “all of that be increased and enhanced wherever possible.”
On Tuesday night, as reality began to sink in on what the order meant, restaurant managers and owners across the Lowcountry began scrambling to adapt.
By Wednesday, March 18, parking spaces along Bay Street and adjacent blocks had been marked as designated curbside service spots. Drivers have 10 minutes to park and pickup or can wait in their cars for food to be brought out.
At Panini’s on the Waterfront, owner Paul Thompson has been working to get curbside pickup and delivery service going.
“We’ve never done this so we’re just trying to get word out,” he said.
In addition to the new service, he was trying to keep his 38 employees busy and working.
“But it’s very hard to find stuff and justify (that) when income is one-tenth of what it normally is,” he said on Thursday.
Employees, he said, were taking the changes and news about the coronavirus hard.
“Obviously they are upset,” he said, adding that he’s encouraged his staff to go ahead and start the process of filing for unemployment insurance.
However, for those who suddenly found themselves without a job, trying to log on to the state’s unemployment website proved difficult as reports of a slow or crashing system came in from across the state.
Dan Ellzey, Executive Director of the S.C. Department of Employment and Workforce, said at a press conference on Thursday, the agency had added additional capacity though many were still reporting having trouble with the system as of Monday.
Ellzey also said that those who were laid off or impacted by the shut down, would be receiving unemployment assistance quicker than normal.
Checks that normally take two weeks when an applicant first applies for assistance, will now arrive in a week’s time, Ellzey said. If it is an employer-filed claim it may take only three days.
Still, as a new reality has set in for those trying to adapt to the closings, many more have realized pickup or delivery is not a viable option.
At Hearth where Mader was fielding calls for take out Thursday morning, she said it was the only restaurant of the three they could leave open.
“We don’t have funds to do the other two,” she said.
The owners of Fishcamp on 11th Street in Port Royal also made the decision to shut down through at least March 30, said manager Tonya Murphy, and won’t be offering take-out or delivery.
In fact, Fish Camp on Broad Creek and the Old Oyster Factory on Hilton Head, which are also owned by Coastal Restaurants and Bars, have shut down through the end of the month, though the restaurant group has other eateries on Hilton Head that will remain open for take-out and delivery.
Murphy said the restaurant was just trying to “wait it out like everyone else” and hopes to bring back the restaurant’s employees as soon as possible.
“Our employees are super important to us,” she said, adding that the Port Royal eatery normally has about 50 to 60 employees working.
On Thursday, as she worked to finish things before closing, she was one of only six people in the mostly empty restaurant and all were doing their best to practice social distancing.
“Hopefully this is only two weeks and then we can bring everyone back,” she said.
Meanwhile, restaurants everywhere like Fishcamp and Hearth have had to lay off or send employees home with instructions to file for unemployment.
Between Hearth and the company’s other two restaurants, Mader said they’ve had to send about 150 employees home.
“It was the hardest thing I have had to do in my life,” she said. “It’s sad. We’re just going to try and weather this out, but we want them to feel like they have a place to come home to when this is all over.”
Down the street at Hemingway’s, Robinson echoed the sentiment saying the Hemingway’s staff are family.
Having just celebrated her one-year anniversary as the bar’s new owner, Robinson had started the first quarter of 2020 on a strong note.
“We had a great year,” she said. “Sales were up.”
Asked if she was anxious about the future, Robinson said they were all still getting used to being closed.
“It’s more of a shock,” she said. “I mean we’re in f—ing limbo.”
After talking about small business loans or help from the federal government, Robinson said her biggest worry was if the government would help small businesses like hers.
“Or is it just going to be help for the big guys,” she said.
In this together
Since the governor’s mandate to close dine-in service, members of the community have sounded the rallying call.
A Facebook page, Beaufort SC AREA Curbside, To-Go & Delivery, has been created for restaurants and other businesses offering curb-side, to-go or delivery to post their services, menus and delivery specials.
The Southeast Entertainment Restaurant Group (SERG) launched a program to help raise funds for their affected employees. VIP Packages can be purchased for $250 each.
The packages include a $100 SERG gift card and a Community VIP card that will give cardholders a 25 percent employee discount at any SERG restaurant for up to four people and a 10 percent discount at the group’s takeout kitchen with unlimited use from the time of re-opening until March 31, 2021.
“One hundred dollars of each sale will go directly to our employees during our forced business closure and will provide up to four weeks of financial support,” said Alan Wolf, SERG President and partner.
In addition, $50 of each sale will be split between Bluffton Self Help and Deep Well on Hilton Head Island. The group has set a goal of selling 10,000 of the packages to locals and visitors.
“By reaching our goal $1 million will have been raised to directly benefit SERG team members in need of financial assistance and $500,000 will have been raised for the greater Lowcountry food and beverage workforce in grants administered by Bluffton Self Help and Deep Well,” Wolf said in a news release.
The City of Beaufort has also moved to lighten the load of business owners by waving all penalties and interest associated with renewing this year’s business licenses and has also waived all interests and penalties associated with hospitality and accommodations taxes for February, March and April.
The waivers will run through June 20, according to a news release issued by the city.
But the question remains, will it be enough?
Asked what the public can do, most everyone responded order dinner. Get takeout. Try curbside pickup.
At Hearth, Mader said it was important to continue supporting small businesses.
As she and many others said, it’s not charity. Rather, it’s about holding on to businesses many residents and visitors alike have come to know and love, run by people who work and live here.
“If you need soap, Natalie (at Bathe) has tons of soaps. If you need a sandwich, go drive through Alvin Ords,” Mader said. “I just want to see everyone come together and support small businesses right now.”
On Thursday morning, more than 24 hours after the executive order was signed, Mader was in the restaurant getting ready for her day.
“I didn’t know what to expect with the to-go orders,” she said. Then suddenly, several came in at once. “That first little pop I got, that was a nice surprise.”
Above photo: Madelyn Feeney, manager at Hearth Wood Fire Pizza on Bay Street, gives a customer his order of pizza and chicken wings. Hearth offers curbside and drop-in service only. Feeney said the restaurant has consistently had about 75 meals ordered per day. Photo by Bob Sofaly.