How local food and beverage pros are working through the many challenges, and what you can do to help
Reservations only at early-bird or late-night hours. One server for half a dining room. Long waits. No outside seating due to staff not showing up. Favorite dishes vanished from menus. Smaller restaurants canceling reservations altogether. This à la carte menu of inconveniences is, unfortunately, a blue plate special across Charleston right now. Before you log onto Yelp to post a one-star review, hear this: “A restaurant is like a swan. It’s gliding across the water gracefully, but what you don’t see is right beneath the water line, there are two legs that are beating like crazy to prolong that grace. And right now in Charleston, that swan has one leg.”
That’s how Ben Ellsworth, the founder of Gigpro, a hospitality app that allows F&B workers to pick up shifts, describes the new normal of dining out in Charleston. With 25 years in the food-service industry, most of those in the city, he should know. “The staffing shortage is catastrophic,” Ellsworth says. When he launched Gigpro in November 2020, the app filled 16 gigs. Today, that figure has skyrocketed. “We’ll fill over 3,000 in Charleston this month,” he says, referring to November 2021.
That’s how great the demand is for service workers. If this story sounds familiar, that’s because it is. For more than a decade Charleston has suffered from a food-and-beverage labor problem that reached critical mass in 2019. Then COVID hit and things went from bad to worse. In 2020, the F&B industry laid off 2.5 million workers across the US, according to the National Restaurant Association, and for once, hospitality workers had a minute to assess their career choices. The result? A so-called “turnover contagion” and mass exodus.
“I think many F&B staffers didn’t realize that what they were in was an abusive relationship,” says North Carolinian Vivian Howard, star of PBS’s A Chef’s Life, who opened Lenoir and Handy & Hot restaurants inside the Renaissance Hotel last year. Howard believes the pandemic was a wake-up call for many in food and beverage, who have been working for years with minimal benefits, long hours, and low wages. “It’s like, they didn’t know what it was until they were on the other side.”
In August 2021 alone, the US Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that 892,000 hospitality employees quit their jobs. And small businesses felt that blow the most. A poll of 803 restaurant owners by online business network Alignable during that same period reported that 85 percent of them found it very difficult to find staff.
“It’s been very, very challenging,” says Kevin Johnson, the chef and owner of fine dining spot The Grocery. Johnson held off reopening in-person dining as long as he could to protect the health and safety of his staff and diners, pivoting to takeout and then outdoor dining. But the pressure cooker to compete with other downtown restaurants that had already reopened was too much, and he unlocked his doors to indoor diners in December 2020. “I’ve tried to remind myself that we should feel fortunate. There are other parts of the country that are facing these challenges without business,” he says.
That’s certainly not the case here. “Charleston has no shortage of diners,” echoes Howard. When it comes to Charlestonians’ appetite for dining out, “Nothing changed,” says Hanna Raskin, the former food editor and critic of The Post & Courier, now the publisher and editor behind The Food Section newsletter. In her new role, Raskin has traveled around the South covering the food scene during the pandemic and says Charleston is an outlier. “We’re not immune to the national trends for short staffing and supply chain issues,” she says, but unlike other cities, our culinary scene, albeit hampered, is open and still functioning. However, the tectonic plates back of house have shifted—whether diners notice or not.
Glass Half Full?
On a recent weekend in November, a line trailed out the door of Millers All Day on King Street. Throngs of customers packed into Marina Variety Store. Well-heeled women squeezed together at tables at Harken, and customer after customer raced into Daps Breakfast & Imbibe for Fruity Pebble pancakes to go. Where other markets like North Carolina’s Research Triangle have seen diners reluctant to return post-reopening, that’s not the case here, says Howard. But that doesn’t mean you can get a table.
“I live on Race Street, which is a great place if you want to go to Brooks’s [Reitz] restaurants, but you can never get in,” says Raskin. “Melfi’s would be my neighborhood bar, but I have to plan weeks in advance if I want to go in and get a Negroni. And that’s really sad, but that’s the Charleston story.”
If anyone was hoping for a pandemic-induced culinary course correction in Charleston, no dice. More than 14 percent of restaurants in the US closed permanently, according to a May 2021 report by the National Restaurant Association, but the bubble didn’t pop here. While notable landmarks like Jestine’s Kitchen, Fulton Five, and Blossom shuttered, there weren’t nearly as many restaurant closures as nationally forecast. In fact, in the October 2021 Charleston Restaurant Report from commercial realtor Thomas Kennedy, openings far outweighed closures with the number of “coming soon” projects topping 70. No one sees that changing any time soon, so what might that foretell?
“The shock waves haven’t settled yet,” says Cynthia Wong, pastry chef and owner of mobile ice-cream novelty shop Life Raft Treats, who has been seeking out a brick-and-mortar retail location. “I don’t think that the effects of the pandemic have really all come to light completely in Charleston.” But she does see one trend that should give any food enthusiast pause. “I think that the big limiting factor in Charleston being filled with great spots like Jackrabbit Filly or Chubby Fish, the type of small neighborhood places that are kind of petering out, is real estate costs,” she says. “Only these gigantic players with a bunch of restaurants in Miami or New York can open a branch in Charleston, pay $5 million for a building, and gut the whole thing to make it all fancy and Instagram-friendly. If you’re a chef in Charleston and you’ve always wanted your own place, you can’t compete with that kind of funding.”
“We are seeing a significant amount of out-of-state investors looking at commercial real estate,” says Jenna Phillipp, a broker with Palmetto Commercial Properties. She adds that inventory is low, and restaurant and retail businesses looking to lease space on the peninsula should anticipate paying anywhere from $40 to $65 per square foot. On King Street that figure can exceed $70 with some landlords. In comparison, rent is lower in Savannah. “We’re at $35 to $60 per square foot in the historic district,” says John Jewell, a commercial broker there.
The rent squeeze is especially problematic when it comes to minority-owned businesses, says KJ Kearney, founder of Black Food Fridays, a digital movement started in April 2020 to encourage diners to support Black-owned restaurants. “The rent is too damn high,” says Kearney. “People are getting pushed out of downtown Charleston.”
Case in point: in 2020, garlic crab haven Nana’s Seafood and Soul fell victim to the pandemic and locked its Line Street location for good. Then in September, Martha Lou’s, a soul food institution, was forced to close after 37 years in business when the land Martha Lou Gadsden rented was sold to a developer. That’s part of why Kearney started his movement, as a way to get people to think about where they spend their dining dollars. But he’d be lying if he said the momentum to choose Black-owned restaurants over others has kept the same pace he saw that summer. “These restaurants were getting a lot of love during that first racial awakening period that I call the ‘June Boom’,” says Kearney referring to the protests in 2020. But, he says, “The work of being an ally is not seasonal.”
And that means that the Gullah Geechee foodways that Charleston’s culinary heritage is built on really is vanishing from the peninsula, the place where the majority of tourists learn about the city’s complicated history, often through the lens of its food. Where Kearney sees opportunity, even in the midst of the global health crisis, is in the booming food scene in North Charleston.
“What you’re seeing is North Charleston exploding,” says Kearney. “There are so many Black-owned restaurants there.”
Maybe even more so in light of the pandemic. The suburbs beyond Charleston are a growing area of opportunity and not just for Black-owned restaurants like Nigel’s Good Food in North Charleston and Ladson, Swank in Summerville, or Station 17 just beyond West Ashley. Charleston’s culinary scene is no longer limited to the geographic confines of the Ashley and the Cooper. But finding reasonable real estate is only half the battle. If the city’s highly acclaimed culinary industry is going to grow and thrive beyond the pandemic, F&Bers say it needs to evolve.
Pay to Play
If there’s a silver lining to staffing demands in the city, it’s that they’ve forced wages to increase. “I’ve seen 50 bucks an hour to get someone to wash dishes,” says Ellsworth. That’s how much one restaurant owner was willing to pay on Gigpro this fall to get a dishwasher on-site. And entry-level rates are the highest Ellsworth has ever seen. For an industry known for low wages, that might sound like reason to celebrate. But anyone with a basic understanding of economics can see why that scenario is unsustainable. Panicked rate surges aren’t the answer—paying a living wage is.
If any business owner has a handle on those numbers it’s Steve Palmer. The founder of The Indigo Road Hospitality Group, Palmer runs 27 restaurants in Charleston, as well as in five states and Washington DC. He’s been in the business for 35 years and is all too familiar with staffing troubles. Palmer says he was forced to make a painful pandemic decision, laying off more than 900 people in March 2020 in order to help his employees get unemployment as quickly as possible during the closure mandate.
“We brought as many people back as we could as quickly as we could,” Palmer says, but making sure they stay is a daily challenge. Together with his human resources manager Kelly Peters, Palmer’s team has developed benefits and programs to encourage retention, including PTO, even for hourly employees; sobriety support; a home loan program; and paid family leave. Robust compensation packages are a novel idea in F&B, where for years a survival-of-the-fittest mentality has trumped any concept of providing for quality of life. But more and more restaurant owners are making the shift. “We’ve added health insurance and a new retirement plan,” says Johnson. “For employees in the back of the house, we’re trying to keep them on a four-day workweek, too. We’re continually trying to find ways to make it an enjoyable place to work.”
With inflation and the rising cost of wholesale commodities, Ellsworth believes Charleston diners should be prepared to pay a price, too. “Restaurant owners have got to pass the buck at some point,” says Ellsworth. “I will pay an extra dollar for my hamburger to make sure that the guy on the line doesn’t have to work three jobs to survive. I’ll do it happily.”
The Secret Sauce
So what’s the new normal of dining in Charleston? The truth is, it isn’t some revolutionary twist on small plates or a post-modern take on molecular gastronomy. You might eat outside more often and have increased takeout options, but ultimately the business of feeding people hasn’t really changed. What the pandemic has revealed is that the business of how we treat those who serve us must. And that begins with each individual diner.
Nikki Fairman, a veteran bartender in the city, says grumblings of “Finally!” are now commonplace when diners get a seat at her bar, and she gets it. “People are frustrated,” she says. “But servers and bartenders are haggard, too. And all we want to do is serve and bless people with a nice time.” Fairman says she has gotten more than her fair share of snide comments about drink size—like “where’s the other half?”—something diners seem especially irritated by after two years of heavy pours at home.
Blame it on a re-entry into society or the current divisive climate, whatever the case, sadly this nasty scene is all too familiar to restaurant workers in Charleston. “I told our staff when we reopened that if we can take anything positive away from being completely shut down, it’s that now the level of grace and humanity and appreciation for the things that we provide will be exponentially increased,” says Johnson. “Boy, was I wrong.”
Come to find out, diners in America’s friendliest city—yes, tourists and locals alike—could use an etiquette refresher starting with “don’t bite the hands that feeds you.”
“Please be patient with us,” says Palmer. “Have some empathy and compassion and understanding that none of us are operating at the level that we want to be right now.” To convince local diners how much they care, Palmer’s Indigo Road restaurants have rolled out special incentives for loyal patrons. Brasserie la Banque will offer a dedicated phone line for longtime Oak patrons to reserve a seat, and Indigo Road is testing a “locals’ card,” offering regulars special perks.
Even without a member’s status, F&Bers say customers can improve their dining experience in this short-staffed situation by doing some research before going out for a bite to eat. “Have a plan,” says Fairman. “Maybe have a snack before leaving the house in case there’s a wait. Or send someone from your party as an emissary while the rest of your group gets a drink nearby.”
The Johnson & Wales grad says diners should know these challenges are just as frustrating for service workers as they are for diners. “It hurts our pride,” says Fairman. “I don’t want to demonize the diner. We all just want to feel normal again.”
And compared to other communities, there’s a lot to be thankful for in Charleston. “There are so many incredible chefs, and there’s still an incredible sense of community among the restaurants that want to continue to support each other,” says Johnson. “That’s embedded in our psyche, and I don’t think that’s going to change.”
That’s the special sauce many believe will see the culinary community through the evolving phases this pandemic has wrought. “What’s not to feel optimistic about?” says Howard. “I’ve been a part of restaurant communities in New York and North Carolina, but the reason I wanted to come here was for the collective creativity and community and support.” And, against all odds, in Charleston there’s no shortage of that.
Photographs by Andrew Cebulka, courtesy of The Indigo Road Hospitality Group; (Johnson) Taylor Jordan & (Sign) Amanda Bouknight; photograph (Indaco) by Andrew Cebulka, Courtesy of The Indigo Road Hospitality Group; (Ellsworth) Amanda Bouknight, (Harken) Melinda Smith Monk, & (Marina Variety Store & Millers All Day) Maggie Wilcox; (Howard) Mira Adwell; (Blossom & Space Available sign) Melinda Smith Monk, (Fulton Five) Margaret Houston, & (basil) Sean Slinsky; Sshell Royster; photographs by (Martha Lou’s) Melinda Smith Monk; (O-Ku) Andrew Cebulka, courtesy of The Indigo Road Hospitality Group; (Palmer) Sarah Westmoreland; & (Kearney) Elizabeth Ervin; Taylor Jordan