Charleston Restaurants and Bars Try to Survive Despite Coronavirus Closings

Mar 23, 2020

Vacant parking spaces stretch on, along empty sidewalks in downtown Charleston.  A lone man drags his luggage as he easily crosses typically bustling King Street.  It’s quiet; too quiet.

This is Charleston post coronavirus.

King Street in downtown Charleston following the mandatory statewide closings of bars and restaurants because of the coronavirus
Credit Victoria Hansen/ SC Public Radio

Down the street off upper King, the owner of Stella's Restaurant Steven Niketas breaks a sweat.  He’s anxious about the recent, emergency order from the governor closing restaurants and bars statewide.

But he’s also busy, at least for the moment, packing bags for take-out orders.  That’s all that’s left.  He's surrounded by empty tables, some with chairs stacked on top.

“We’re all scrambling to survive this,” says Niketas.

Ice cream shop on King Street open for take-out sits empty.
Credit Victoria Hansen/ SC Public Radio

Niketas was so worried about the current health crisis, he voluntarily closed a day before the  state mandate for the sake of his employees and customers.

"Your life, your health, the health of your family and your neighbors is more important," he says.

He's since had to lay off most of his staff.  But he's trying to help by filing for unemployment benefits on their behalf.

"It short cuts the waiting time.  It shortcuts the requirments."

Just a handful of chefs and a manager are left, as Niketas carefully pulls delicious smelling dishes from the kitchen window.  He packs them, bags them and carries them out to customers who remain in their cars in his back parking lot.

Niketas is only open for four hours this Saturday night.  Normally, patrons would have reservations or be willing to wait.  But he’s grateful for any business.  He’s just trying to survive.

A week in, he’s hearing about casualties; other restaurant owners who already know they won’t be able to reopen.

“The fallout from this could be dramatic,” he says.

Stella's owner Steven Niketas and manager Katie Kibler wait for food from the kitchen to wrap up and deliver to customers waiting outside.
Credit Victoria Hansen/ SC Public Radio

Of the Charleston area's nearly 50,000 leisure and hospital employees, more than 70 percent work in the food and beverage industry.  

Over the Ravenel bridge toward some of the area’s local beaches, another restaurant owner Nico Romo wonders why the federal government hasn’t stepped in, requiring everyone to shelter in place as some states have done.

He points to Italy, a country with a staggering death toll now on lockdown.

“If somebody is doing something in front of you two weeks, three weeks, two or three months before you and you know the end result,” says Romo.  “Why wait?”

Romo and other restaurants owners are eager to get any kind of shut down over.  The sooner the coronavirus is contained, the sooner they can try to get back to business.  But they worry if people will even be able to dine out with so many losing their jobs.

Large black and white signs advertising ordering online fill the empty windows of Nico Oysters and Seafood.  Romo too is trying his hand at take-out and delivery.

“I’m really hoping it will pick up more,” says Romo.  “If it does, I can hire more people back.”

Romo has had to layoff 70 percent of his staff, about 30 people.  But he’s keeping their health insurance going.  The least he can try to do, he says, in case they get sick.

Closed restaurant in downtown Charleston due to the coronavirus. Many are offering curbside take-out.

He welcomes help from federal, state and city leaders who are delaying tax deadlines, waiving fees and offering low interest small business loans.  But Romo adds loans are just that, more debt for already financially strapped restaurants with small profit margins.

Also, in Mount Pleasant, Andrea Parco has been trying to figure out apps and social media to advertise for her husband’s two restaurants the Mustard Seed and Long Point Grill.  She says he’s back in the kitchen cooking again.  Employees they’ve had to let go are volunteering, helping with take-out orders in exchange for grocery shopping in their pantry.

“We’re thinking outside the box and coming up with plan A, plan B and plan C,” says Parco.

She credits loyal customers with keeping them surprisingly busy, despite not being able to dine-in.

In West Ashley, Executive Chef Christopher Mahr at Betty Lou’s Bistro is trying to think outside the box too. 

“What can we do?  How can we change our menu to be cheaper to compete with grocery stores?”

He says their most popular items include fried seafood.  But that doesn’t carry out so well. 

“We’re offering fried chicken right now to go,” he says. “Hopefully that will catch on.”

As for employees, Mahr says he’s doing his best to keep them, even if they only work one shift.  The restaurant recently started donating all the  money made from non-alcohol beverages to their servers, to make up for smaller tips.

Outside Stella's restaurant in Charleston
Credit Victoria Hansen/ SC Public Radio

Back downtown, the hip cocktail bar Doars Brothers is closed. That’s where Megan Deshaine was the bar manager until she was recently laid off.

“We serve food, great food in fact, but we don’t have the operation capacity to be a take-out or to go business,” she says.

Deshaine has worked in the bar business for 12 years.  She’s never had to apply for unemployment before.  She’s finding the system, much like herself; overwhelmed.

“I think the implications of this particular pandemic are going to be felt for months even years,” she says. 

“I’m honestly scared.   It's best  just to think in the short term right now and manage our manageable.”

She’s also the president of the Charleston chapter of the United States Bar Guild.  So, she’s been collecting resources for others impacted by closing due to the coronavirus.

“The gag has always been whether the economy is healthy or we’re in a recession, people still drink that the bar industry is still protected,” says Deshaine.

But protection has been hard to come by from a virus without  a vaccine that has several states already sheltering in place with no word on how long.

If you'd like to help restaurant and bar workers during the coronavirus closures you can learn how here.

Food and beverages workers in need can find resources as well, including the Bartender Emergency Assistance Program, the Children of Restaurant Employees Resource Center,  and the One Fair Wage Emergency Fund.