Boxes and piles of to-go containers fill the space that was once the dining room of St. Roch, a seafood joint with a New Orleans flair, located on Wilmington Street in downtown Raleigh. Sunny Gerhart, chef and owner, remains the last employee left standing at St. Roch during COVID-19.
St. Roch opened doors in May 2017 as one of Raleigh’s most hyped openings of the year. Prior, Gerhart served as Ashley Christensen’s sous chef at Poole’s and later moved to now-shuttered Joule, Christensen’s coffee shop-meets-restaurant, to head up the kitchen. Ironically, a few months after Joule closed, Gerhart transformed the space into what is now charming St. Roch.
The glass display windows on both sides of the entrance give the space an old school, unique vibe to downtown. On any given night hip music, killer food and ambiance collide. Now, Gerhart posts up the empty restaurant, sans staff and hungry patrons, riding the wave “It’s lonely,” he says. There are very few restaurants open for takeout in downtown Raleigh right now. In fact, it’s mostly a ghost town. “I spent some time riding my bike around the dining room, just thinking,” he says — always playing upbeat tunes to pass time.
“This week is busy, but that’s all I know,” Gerhart says, quickly noting that each week varies. “I know what I can do by myself,” he adds. “I am in a better position because it’s just me — I have the ability to be more mobile versus a larger restaurant.” But this also means no days off. Last week, Gerhart cooked 500 pounds of red beans on his own. It sounds like a lot of labor for one person, but he quickly stresses that he would not have been able to reopen if he would have fully shut down during COVID-19 like the majority of his peers.
St. Roch is currently bringing in 10% of its normal sales with takeout orders. “We never really did takeout before,” he says. It’s a completely different ball game that involves a completely different process — plus you have to factor in the new costs. “I’ve spent $3,000 on to-go products and containers [last] week,” he adds, but reiterates how adaptation is a crucial part of this new learning curve. “Takeout was something I wanted to do for lunch for a while,” he says, stating that lunch business had never been a success. In addition to takeout, Gerhart is cooking around 200 to 400 meals for healthcare workers and roughly 1,000 meals for Inter-Faith Food Shuttle (a non-profit to help fight hunger within the community) each week.
The chef also celebrated 18 months sober in March. “Last fall I was paying for mistakes from drinking,” Gerhart says. “I was a functioning alcoholic for a long time,” he says, disclosing that St. Roch would not have survived fall 2019 if he didn’t sober up. “Ashley [Christensen] had these bits of wisdom where I was dealing with money issues and she’d tell me to not ignore them and to just deal with them,” he adds, noting that she helped him conquer many fears.
“I’d be here at 10 a.m. and sit at my computer and make myself breakfast,” he says. “I wasn’t doing anything because I was fucking hungover, waiting on people to come in.” Sobriety gifted him a lot of perspective and the ability to deal with a lot more. “Now I work a lot harder and get a lot more done and am able to focus on things.” Sobriety proves to be a gift he’s thankful for during COVID-19, too.
Gerhart’s overall vibe is optimistic. He talks around in circles about being thankful for the opportunity to evaluate what’s working and what’s not working. “I hope to come out on the other side of this and be more of the restaurant I wanted to have,” he says. Regardless, things will change for the short term. “We won’t be able to pack this place out on a Saturday night as we normally do,” he adds. It should be noted that 20% of St. Roch’s sales come from bustling Saturday nights.
In early May, St. Roch celebrates its three year anniversary. Gerhart stresses there’s a lot to figure out, pandemic aside. “Ashley was going to do a dinner here with Matt Fern and Luke Buchanan from Poole’s to come over and bartend, but obviously we can’t do that now.”
Circling back to takeout, Gerhart hopes to perfect his to-go strategy by the time he can safely reopen. “If I can do the same numbers of takeout food I’m doing right now, on top of normal business, I’m doing awesome,” he says. If all goes as planned with Governor Roy Cooper’s lifting phases of the stay at home order, St. Roch could possibly open on June 1. Gerhart can’t grasp what that looks like yet.
“Just like every opportunity, you have to learn from it and you have to adapt from it,” he says. “People have a short term memory — I think things will go back to normal pretty quickly,” he adds, in talks of a near distant future day when restaurants and bars are fully opened again. For now, he’ll continue to sling po’ boy sandwiches, a limited selection of fried seafood dishes, gumbo, and dialed up salads, all by his lonesome, perfecting his takeout game along the way.
• St. Roch [Official]
• Why Restaurateur Ashley Christensen Wanted to Be Her Own Landlord [E]
• Poole’s [Official]
• Inter-Faith Food Shuttle [Official]