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The Long Strange Year: “Sense of Community Never Stronger”

WRITTEN BY Stephanie Hunt

PHOTOGRAPH BY Sarah Westmoreland

Steve Palmer, managing partner of The Indigo Road Hospitality Group, in The Cedar Room, one of the company’s eight Charleston properties; his team is working toward new ventures, including brasserie La Banque to open at One Broad this spring.

“Having to lay off 940 people is a day I’ll never forget,” says Steve Palmer, veteran restaurateur and managing partner of The Indigo Road Hospitality Group, of March 17 last year. The tents from Charleston Wine + Food were still being dismantled, where just a few days earlier, Palmer’s chefs were among those feeding thousands of guests milling around, eating, drinking, festing, and feasting like there was no tomorrow, or certainly no tomorrow like the one they faced.

“We were completely blindsided,” says Palmer, whose local establishments include Oak Steakhouse, Indaco, O-Ku, The Macintosh, The Cedar Room, and The Cocktail Club. “I’ve been in the business long enough that I’ve managed through economic downturns, but there was no playbook for this.”

Palmer’s bars and restaurants shuttered overnight, as did his many cohorts in this culinary destination, where F&B (food and beverage) has become a chief economic engine, or oven, of the leisure/hospitality sector—the region’s fourth largest employer. Restaurants that could pivoted to takeout mode and hobbled along with skeleton staff, but the losses were devastating, both in terms of revenue and esprit de corps. “Our spirit, our passion, is to take care of people,” says Palmer. And suddenly that shifted from caring for guests to caring for teammates and industry colleagues in similar survival mode. “We were on the phone, checking in with each other, helping each other with PPP loan applications, and comparing notes on how we’re doing [COVID] testing.”

“Independent restaurants are a community backbone—vital both philanthropically and as an economic driver. I would like to see that recognized at the policy level.”

—Steve Palmer,The Indigo Road Hospitality Group

The resilience of his hospitality industry colleagues didn’t surprise Palmer. “The sense of community that we saw from fellow Charleston restaurateurs has never been stronger. But that came from those inside the industry, and from our loyal customers, who were amazing,” he observes. “In a city like Charleston, where F&B is one of the top employers, there could have been more leadership, more help, from our elected officials, and there hasn’t been. We were left to deal with this on our own.”

Palmer has been active in mobilizing the Independent Restaurant Coalition in response to the pandemic, advocating for more relief on behalf of the 16 million people across the country whose livelihoods depend on independent restaurants.

Though there can be many factors that cause restaurant closings, and not all of the 56-some Charleston-area restaurants that closed for good in 2020 were directly COVID-related, the pandemic was undoubtedly an exacerbating issue for many of them. Stalwarts like Fulton Five, Old Towne Restaurant, and Jestine’s Kitchen were among the culinary casualties.

Since Governor Henry McMaster reopened South Carolina restaurants with reduced occupancy on May 11, Palmer has been able to hire back 98 percent of his workforce. Even so, he feels stung by the last year. In times of crisis, for example a hurricane or the Mother Emanuel shootings, the restaurant industry is the first to be asked to help, he points out. “And we’re glad to do it. We’re the ones who run the soup kitchens, who raise money for this and that, but boy, was that not returned. We got clobbered, and the help wasn’t there from local or national government,” he says.

“When we do return to normal, I hope there’s a shift in the way people see the hospitality industry. Independent restaurants are a community backbone—vital both philanthropically and as an economic driver. I would like to see that recognized at the policy level.”

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