Ruta Smith

The devastation from the coronavirus pandemic is being felt by people all over the world. Loved ones are frightened of becoming ill, stock markets are plummeting, and thousands of people in Charleston and nationwide now find themselves jobless. The hospitality industry is in an especially precarious position — hourly employees are being laid off and restaurants are attempting to make ends meet with only take-out and delivery services. Some supplies are difficult to come by, margins are razor thin, and kitchens are empty. Yes, the kitchens of many of Charleston’s beloved restaurants are void of the food and people that make them whole. With burners unlit and prep stations spotless, we stopped by a few favorite local restaurants to see these places empty, without the people and activity that have come to define Charleston.

Travis Grimes
Executive chef, Husk

“The amount of employees interacting inside Husk on a normal service day is easily 50 or more. The sense of activity that goes on in that kitchen is incredible. For it to be quiet and empty is a really strange feeling. We’ve experienced shutting down for hurricanes before, hustling around the kitchen to get everything in the freezer. But this is a different feeling. We don’t know when this ends. Walking out of the restaurant last week, I was just thinking about how big of my identity this place is. A couple days ago I was the executive chef at Husk. Today, I’m unemployed. We’re a resilient industry, but the real question is who will be there for us when all this is over? The landscape of restaurants has completely changed.”

Brooke Warren
Owner, Pink Cactus

“When you start a mom-and-pop restaurant, you’re already in survival mode. Right now, I’m trying to figure out how my concept can work through this. My chef comes in the morning, and I help her prep until 2 o’clock when I let her go. For the rest of the day, I’m in here by myself. As an employer, I’m the person who’s supposed to be taking care of my staff, but I don’t know how to do that because I don’t know how to take care of myself. It’s heartbreaking.”

Nayda Hutson
Co-owner, Renzo

“When the dining room is open for service and really busy, the kitchen can feel that energy a little more. Without anyone in the dining room, we’re making up for that by playing music even louder. There has definitely been a lot more chatting between the front-of-the-house and the kitchen crew than we would normally have. In some ways, this has brought us a little closer together.”

Lynda Prado
Co-owner, Spanglish

“We always tell our servers and staff to have fun. I mean, the place is pink for goodness sake. If you don’t come in here with a smile on your face then just forget it. We aren’t the type of restaurant owners that take a step back when things go downhill. This moment in time is a great test to see what we are made of. It’s not just us, it’s everybody.”

Bob Cook
Executive chef and managing partner, Edmund’s Oast

“On a normal day pre-coronavirus, it would be myself and 10 other people working separate stations in the kitchen. Now, it’s two people. We never really considered this reality. It’s such uncharted territory, and we are just doing what we can to come through it on the other side.”

Aaron Siegel
Owner, Home Team BBQ

“Our ‘Rock the Block’ party at the end of February was one of the greatest achievements Home Team has ever had. It’s a day that’s resonated with me this week because all of our employees who were so empowered that day are now in a position where they need help. We laid off 390 workers Wednesday. Every time I’ve stood in this kitchen when it was empty before, I knew it would be full again. This time, you don’t know when you’re going to be back or if you’re going to be back.”

Alex Lira
Executive chef, Estadio

“The motivation for us is making sure this place stays open in the long run so we still have jobs for our staff when all of this is over. ‘Family meal’ is a big thing at Estadio right now. We send out a message every day, and each staff member comes to pick it up at a certain time. We’ve created a much more elaborate, extravagant family meal than would be standard. Lobster croquettes, shrimp, rotisserie chicken. We’re doing as much as we can and trying to show as much respect as possible.”

Mike Lata
Chef and partner, The Ordinary

“We laid off our hourly workers and shortly thereafter we had to let go of several salary employees too. We’ve been preparing food for them, and they are picking it up every other day. Hopefully this will help offset costs at home. Now that some of the dust has settled, we are more focused on health. The kitchen is tidy, clean, and the inventory is low, but I’m not going to get too profound about that. Right now, it’s time for us to hunker down and fight this thing at home.”

Stay cool. Support City Paper.

City Paper has been bringing the best news, food, arts, music and event coverage to the Holy City since 1997. Support our continued efforts to highlight the best of Charleston with a one-time donation or become a member of the City Paper Club.