They're open, but can Charleston restaurants survive at partial capacity? 

Distanced Dining

click to enlarge Chef Vinson Petrillo will gauge diners' feedback before Zero Restaurant + Bar rethinks its luxe menu

Ruta Smith

Chef Vinson Petrillo will gauge diners' feedback before Zero Restaurant + Bar rethinks its luxe menu

Restaurants rely on community and closeness. There's comfort in winding down at a local bar or crowding into a table where you're likely to strike up a conversation with your neighbors. This dining landscape, however, is in the throes of change due to the coronavirus.

Some restaurants and bars are equipped to push through a time when many tables are missing, while others won't be the same half full. Regardless, many are anxious about their short-term futures. To get a full picture of how the industry is preparing to handle the realities of distanced dining, we spoke with the chefs, restaurateurs and workers dealing with these drastic changes.

"I don't think it's feasible for a lot of restaurants to operate at 30 or even 50 percent capacity," said Joey Ryan, co-owner of Tu and Xiao Bao Biscuit, two hip downtown restaurants that have relied on takeout since the start of the pandemic.

click to enlarge Tu and Xiao Bao Biscuit's Joey Ryan (left) and Josh Walker offered takeout for the first time amid the pandemic - RUTA SMITH
  • Ruta Smith
  • Tu and Xiao Bao Biscuit's Joey Ryan (left) and Josh Walker offered takeout for the first time amid the pandemic

"I've spent more on to-go boxes than alcohol over the last two months. If you take some of our tables out, then you are erasing an already slim margin."

After being forced to halt sit-down meals for months, restaurants have been allowed to resume distanced outdoor dining as well as limited dine-in service.

According to Ryan, the timing of the cautious reopening poses a challenge for restaurant owners. "If we rely on March through August for the bulk of our revenue and we are expected to operate at the equivalent of a medium September for the next eight months, it will be really difficult."

If the pandemic stretches on, many establishments could be in trouble. A recent survey showed 71 percent of restaurants with profit margins under 10 percent over the last year, according to the James Beard Foundation. With fixed costs such as labor, inventory, payroll, rent and credit card processing fees, even small amounts of lost revenue could be devastating.

Nico Romo, chef and owner of NICO, said his Mount Pleasant eatery was able to break even by just offering takeout, in part because he didn't collect a paycheck for over two months. Romo knows that isn't a sustainable solution.

click to enlarge Chef Nico Romo (pictured) and sous chef Matt Ward have taken precautions inside and out ahead of reopening - RUTA SMITH
  • Ruta Smith
  • Chef Nico Romo (pictured) and sous chef Matt Ward have taken precautions inside and out ahead of reopening

"I already went into debt to start a restaurant, and I don't want to go into more debt to reopen," Romo said. "It's a survival mode that everyone has to get into. It's not cheap to do things right."

While many local establishments were forced to furlough their employees at the onset of the pandemic, Romo decided to keep his managerial team on board and continued health benefits for his out-of-work hourly employees.

"Nico has family in France, so he was able to be proactive and see things two weeks in advance," said NICO sous chef Matt Ward.

But each time state leaders tighten or loosen restrictions, restaurants are forced to rethink their models yet again.

click to enlarge Nico's sous chef Matt Ward - RUTA SMITH
  • Ruta Smith
  • Nico's sous chef Matt Ward

"When the coronavirus hit, we essentially opened an entirely new restaurant," Ward said. "As soon as they opened patios, we saw a steady decline in business."

With former takeout patrons enjoying dining outdoors elsewhere, the restaurant upgraded safety precautions in order to reopen. After installing a plexiglass barrier at the host stand and a new sink at the entrance, NICO's patio reopened May 8.

click to enlarge Chef John Zucker is cautiously resuming limited service at his two downtown restaurants - RUTA SMITH
  • Ruta Smith
  • Chef John Zucker is cautiously resuming limited service at his two downtown restaurants

"Having an open kitchen means we have to take an extra step to protect our staff," said Ward. "We hope to be a model for other restaurants."

Smaller eateries in particular will have to make use of outdoor areas, something chef John Zucker is planning for his restaurants Cru Cafe and Purlieu.

"We decided to add some seating on our back deck area at Cru Cafe and we're also going to add sidewalk seating at Purlieu on June 1," Zucker said. "We'll reevaluate indoor dining two weeks after that. Ultimately, no matter how many seats there are you have to adjust your process to the sales that you have. If you can forecast your sales, you can determine how many people to bring back."

click to enlarge Patrons were upbeat when Felix reopened, bartender Tiffany Gauch says - RUTA SMITH
  • Ruta Smith
  • Patrons were upbeat when Felix reopened, bartender Tiffany Gauch says

The staff at Felix Cocktails et Cuisine reopened their Paris-inspired dining room to guests on May 14. "People tended to stay a little more to themselves," said bartender and manager Tiffany Gauch. "I kind of felt that people wanted to be in their own little pods."

Despite this, Gauch said she was welcomed back by several regulars while mixing drinks behind the bar. "The energy was great, everybody was excited, and people were happy to see each other."

click to enlarge Mackenzie Pelletier believes added precautions for servers will be worth it - RUTA SMITH
  • Ruta Smith
  • Mackenzie Pelletier believes added precautions for servers will be worth it

Mackenzie Pelletier, a server at Bistro A Vin and Cafe Framboise, said business has been steady since the neighboring restaurants reopened with patio and limited indoor seating. But even with fewer patrons, there's more work for servers post-corona.

"We're over-checking everything and I'm wearing a mask and changing gloves frequently," said Pelletier. "It's more work but it's definitely worth it in the long run. I'm fortunate to keep working and people have been really understanding for the most part."

click to enlarge At Stems & Skins, co-owner Justin Croxall believes their Park Circle location will help - RUTA SMITH
  • Ruta Smith
  • At Stems & Skins, co-owner Justin Croxall believes their Park Circle location will help

At Stems & Skins, a wine bar in North Charleston, co-owner Justin Croxall is optimistic their small size and location will help them weather the storm in the coming months. "Park Circle is growing so quickly, so we might be better off than a restaurant that just signed a lease downtown," said Croxall. "It's a really close community and we feel like we will get a lot of support from them regardless."

By expanding operating hours to include lunch, Croxall hopes to compensate for some lost sales. Still, the atmosphere will be different inside the cozy bar. "For a place like us, the vibe is one of our heavy focuses. It's going to be difficult to keep that level where we had it."

click to enlarge Chef Vinson Petrillo - RUTA SMITH
  • Ruta Smith
  • Chef Vinson Petrillo

Zero Restaurant + Bar's executive chef Vinson Petrillo said the biggest hurdle will be finding diners still willing to spend over $100 each on a seven-course meal. Nonetheless, Petrillo said their space could set them up for success in a post-corona world.

"We kind of already have a system in place where there is minimal contact," he said. "When you get here, the food just starts."

Still, Petrillo's already small 24-seat dining room has been cut in half, leaving him with an important decision — dial back the luxurious, experiential dinner or move forward with the same high-end format.

"Over the past six years, we've developed a great following, and I think it would be a shame to try to cut back on the quality of ingredients," he said. "We're going to slowly reopen, see what the demand is, and if we do have to think about maybe removing a course and reducing the price, we will do that."

click to enlarge Dwayne Mitchell knows his tight-knit customer base will return, but it may not be the same - RUTA SMITH
  • Ruta Smith
  • Dwayne Mitchell knows his tight-knit customer base will return, but it may not be the same

Local 616 owner Dwayne Mitchell has kept a steady local following since opening on upper Meeting Street in 2013, but he understands the coronavirus could impact the dynamic of his neighborhood bar. "Our regulars are used to being able to come into the pub, grab a seat at the bar and have a conversation with anyone sitting next to them," said Mitchell. "Now you are a bit hesitant to have that same conversation. Relying on a packed bar or restaurant on the weekends to float your business will become a thing of the past."

While many of his colleagues have started welcoming guests, Mitchell said he wasn't quite ready. "As of May 11, I am not in agreement with the opening of restaurants and bars at half capacity or even patio service at this time."

Romo chose to restart patio service at NICO, but not before creating his own code of conduct. A lack of definitive rules from the state has put restaurants in a tough spot.

"It's all suggestions and kind of, 'Do as you wish,' " Romo said. "Will that give people enough confidence to come back? I don't know. I'm thankful to have the ability to reopen, but I feel slighted because the liability was handed off to us."

Croxall agreed, saying, "There's just been such little leadership, and there's never been a really good point of reference. I think that's led to people having to make their own decisions on how to open, which has led to some backlash."

Ryan echoed this sentiment. "We in the private sector are not equipped to handle this like the public sector is. It's been frustrating to not have an adult in the room from the public sector."

Zucker's frustrations lie at the federal level with the handling of the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP), designed to incentivize owners to keep employees on payroll. "The terms they presented to restaurants are really not manageable. We're hoping that getting our employees back to work now will help make that PPP a grant not a loan."

Without significant government intervention, many restaurateurs fear the future. An April survey from the National Bureau of Economic Research estimates that a restaurant has a 30 percent chance of survival if the coronavirus pandemic lasts four months. Although we have yet to reach the four-month mark, we continue to learn about the plight facing restaurants during this pandemic. Those businesses that do survive may reshape the industry.

For restaurant owners, the future is uncertain, but Mitchell stresses the importance of togetherness. "Every day matters. Every person matters. If we want to come out stronger and better on the other side of this, we all have to be selfless and think about the bigger picture."

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