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Jackrabbit Filly in Charleston, South Carolina
Mike Ledford

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What It’s Like to Open (or Not Open) a Restaurant in the Carolinas During the Novel Coronavirus Outbreak

Chefs face their toughest decisions yet

For the majority of chefs around the country, the Coronavirus outbreak signals closing up shop for an extended period of time. But some North and South Carolina chefs are facing brand new staff layoffs and closing doors a month into opening — or even worse, closing a restaurant before there is a chance to open.

As of Tuesday, March 17, Governor Roy Cooper ordered all North Carolina bars and restaurants to close at 5 p.m. Tuesday, aside from take-out and delivery. Hours later, Governor Henry McMaster ordered that restaurants and bars stop dine-in service in South Carolina beginning Wednesday. For most businesses this news means restructuring to to-go orders only and laying off employees for the foreseen future.

James Beard nominated chef Greg Collier and his wife Subrina were on path to open Leah & Louise, a modern juke joint serving Memphis-style Southern food. It was to be the first restaurant opening at Charlotte’s Camp North End, a 76-acre industrial site-turned creative mixed use space to provide more opportunity and mobility for low-income Charlotteans. “While we are so disappointed to not be able to welcome the public inside Leah & Louise as planned this week, the health and safety of our employees and the public is a priority,” says Collier. The Colliers are contacting those with opening weekend reservations to break the news followed by an immediate shift into curbside and takeout only.

The sign at Leah & Louise
Jenn Rice

“We’re not in this alone — it’s scary and uncertain for everyone right now, not just small business owners,” Greg says. “Subrina and I have lost family members, been through a fire and had a business not work — but our stress right now is the ability to take care of the families we have built through our collective labor of love,” he adds. “If we can’t utilize our business to build revenue we can’t pay them,” he says, in hopes that selling gift cards, curbside service and delivery will push them through, as well as many others.

On Friday, March 13, the Goodyear House, serving elevated comfort food in a converted 1900s mill home, plowed through nearly 400 covers. The restaurant recently opened February 4, 2020, with chef Chris Coleman reporting that up until Monday, March 16, business “was slammed.” A quick contingency plan led Coleman to focus on an achievable delivery menu with simple items like burgers, salads, grilled cheese and cold appetizers that travel well, but most importantly keeping the pricing fair — and to keep his employees staffed. “People are going to be hunkered down and they’re going to be craving comfort food,” he adds. “I encourage people to support their favorite restaurant by ordering online and continuing to do pickup and delivery — to buy gift cards,” he says. Coleman is also brainstorming additional ways to bring in revenue. “That’s just the reality of the duration and the only way to keep business open right now is cash flow,” he adds. “The margins in this industry are already super tight, with most places depending on week to week, if not day to day business.”

The margins in this industry are already super tight, with most places depending on week to week, if not day to day business.

In Durham, Matt Kelly is faced with closing down five restaurants simultaneously, one being Saint James Seafood, just seven weeks after it reopened from nearly a year-long hiatus due to an unfortunate explosion in Brightleaf Square in 2019. “I feel for my team — they do not deserve it,” Kelly says. “I was transparent and wanted to give them the honest truth and make the right decisions,” he adds. “It doesn’t matter how hard it is — we are in a humbling position where we have brave people working for us.”

The reality is that no one knows how long this shutdown will last. There is no real timeline. There are no answers. “I am not interested in putting a bandaid on anything that needs brain surgery,” Kelly notes, of foregoing takeout menus and delivery at his restaurants. “I want for my employees to stay home, be safe and be healthy,” he says. “This is a thing of distance — it’s not something that will repair itself. We need to be prepared for serious and long term lifestyle changes and shifts.”

In the former Wimpy’s Grill space, an 32-year old iconic, greasy spoon joint in Durham, Alex Franson opened the Durham Filling Station three days prior to Wake County’s first positive case of COVID-19. The walk-up restaurant, serving comfort food for breakfast and lunch, remains open for the foreseeable future given its take-out only business model. Franson notes that even with a takeout-only model he’s dealing with around 10-18% decline in sales, day after day, week after week. The average ticket is $7.50, drastically less than a larger scale restaurants take out menu items. “It has everything to do with what your infrastructure is,” Franson adds, hoping to keep people employed while feeding many more hungry patrons and industry workers as businesses tighten up. “If I can’t survive the next three weeks, I’m fucked,” he boldly stated.

The Juicy Lucy at the Durham Filling Station
The Durham Filling Station/Facebook

In Wilmington, James Beard-nominated chef Dean Neff’s new downtown restaurant, Seabird, is slated to open in August 2020, serving coffee, breakfast, lunch, dinner and late night cocktails. While summer is several months away, Neff is already faced with big challenges. “One of the major challenges I see in getting past this crisis is our ability to put together a crisis management plan for our staff,” says Neff. “A restaurant that seats 100 people would need close to $100,000 in reserves to pay the staff for three months without being open,” he adds. Unsure of the pushback date, Neff will adapt to the curveball he’s been faced with as things change. “While we are hopeful that this will last a couple of weeks to a month it seems like the more realistic truth is that we will be feeling the weight of this for three to five months,” he says. “We are anxious and hopeful that we will have skilled staff available at the end of this tunnel.”

“[On Tuesday] my wife was trying to write the schedule for our employees where we can give them enough hours a week, and raising their hourly just so they can meet their bottom line to pay their bills and enough for day to day supplies including food,” says Shuai Wang chef and owner of Jackrabbit Filly, a Chinese-American restaurant in Charleston. Jackrabbit Filly opened in November 2019, following success and a loyal fan base by way of Short Grain, the couple’s popular food truck. “We have no clue what’s going to happen in the next few weeks,” says Wang. No investors equals no backup plan on finances for many. “We honestly could care less about making money at this point,” he adds. “We’re just hoping to pay our bills, keep our employees paid so they can pay their bills and go from there,” he adds. “We’re taking it day by day for now — that’s really all we can do — that, and hope for the best.”

Doug Cross opened Gather Greenville, an outdoor food hall, on February 18, 2020, with 13 restaurants and beverage purveyors under one space — exactly one year after anticipated opening date due to permitting, contracting and environmental issues. While health and well-being of his staff and the community is top priority, Cross notes “Coronavirus dealt a body blow to our entrepreneurs and has placed all their hopes and dreams in great jeopardy.” Some tenants will remain open for takeout, but “depending on the duration of the restaurant/bar directives, the livelihood of our tenant partners and their families is at risk,” Cross says. “Our outdoor venue is spread out with multiple dining options,” he adds. “You are not likely to spend any time in a line and you can still enjoy among the best food and beverage in Greenville while practicing social distancing.”

Urban Wren

“It’s definitely been an interesting time to open a restaurant,” says Don Lincoln, owner of Urban Wren — a winery and restaurant new to Greenville, South Carolina’s dining scene as of March 5, 2020. “Even so, we have been so encouraged by and grateful for the number of repeat guests, already, that we’ve served in just over a week’s time.” The restaurant, as of this week, will offer a curbside menu plus family sized meals with a to-go wine list. “We are committed to taking care of our people and want to set an example from the very beginning that we have great food, great wine, but most of all, great hearts,” Lincoln adds.

As Matt Kelly boldy puts it, “restaurants as we know them are going to change forever.” Each restaurant owner, chef, baker, barista, food truck owner and so forth are faced with navigating the new normal, whatever that may mean, as curbside and takeout meals are only sustainable for so long.

North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper Halts Dine-In Option for Restaurants [ECAR]
Leah & Louise [Official]
Camp North End [Official]
The Goodyear House [Official]
Saint James Seafood [Official]
Seabird [Official]
Jackrabbit Filly [Official]
Gather Greenville [Official]
Urban Wren [Official]

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