Photo by Ruta Smith

Shift Change

The pandemic-prompted crisis facing the food and beverage industry is leading employees to reevaluate their standing at local establishments, causing some to consider changing career paths. Restaurants of all models, sizes and price points have been forced to pivot, shrinking full-time workforces. For some employees, the uncertainty was too much.

Some are still contemplating their next moves, while others have already carved out new roles within the industry or followed passions to another field. For these individuals, their last shifts marked new beginnings — a time when the skills acquired working in restaurants and bars are helping to navigate new opportunities in the real estate, airline or other industries.

Photo by Ruta Smith
Industry veteran Michael Curtis says dining out has changed post-pandemic

Moving on

Michael Curtis had mixed feelings at the onset of the pandemic after he was furloughed from The Establishment, a fine-dining Broad Street restaurant that saw its temporary closure turn permanent at the end of 2020.

“We all thought we would be back the next week, and it was pretty surreal when it was our last night,” said Curtis, who worked in the hospitality industry for 35 years in cities like Paris, San Francisco and Martha’s Vineyard. Recalling the weeks after South Carolina’s stay-at-home order was lifted, Curtis said, “It was kind of nice to look through and see that every place that I had dreamed of working was looking for staff.”

Most of the jobs were temporary, Curtis said, so he spent his time picking up odd jobs around town and the occasional shift at Tattooed Moose on Johns Island.

“It has been an interesting time because you lose the consistency of a stable waitstaff,” Curtis said. “The dining experience is completely changed. You don’t really want to stay indoors and keep eating, and most people are in a rush.”

Photo by Ruta Smith
Former Oak Bar Manager Melanie Ng is training to become a pilot

Finding consistent shifts was also an issue for Melanie Ng, the former bar manager at Oak Steakhouse, located steps from The Establishment on Broad Street. The pandemic didn’t lead the pilot-in-training into her next career, but it solidified her decision after she went from “being the full-time bar manager, back to the fill-in girl.”

“I was just exhausted all the time, because all my free time was either studying or flying,” said Ng, who went on her first discovery flight five years ago. “I decided that I was going to do something for myself.”
St. Patrick’s Day was Ng’s last shift, and since, she’s completely devoted herself to flying as an instructor working toward the 1,500 hours of air time required to become a commercial airline pilot.

“I have probably five students right now all at different levels of flight training,” said Ng, who flies 10-15 times each week. “Because the student is learning, they are still considered the pilot-in-command, but I can still get the credit because as the teacher I have all the responsibility.”

Photo by Ruta Smith
Shana Swain is working towards a career in real estate

Zen Asian Fusion bartender Shana Swain, a 19-year industry veteran, is working towards a career in real estate, but the transition hasn’t been easy.

“I have been spread pretty thin, but I’m very motivated to build my brand like I did in food and beverage,” said Swain, who still picks up the occasional shift at Zen. The March shutdown scared the mother of two, leading her to take an online real estate course before entering a 90-day intensive training program at Carolina One Realty.

“That was the first time in my 19-year career that I realized my job was vulnerable,” she said.

Swain is still bartending four nights a week, but hopes to fully transition to her next career by August 2021, she said. The now-licensed real estate agent has buyer, seller and investor clients and is already finding success in her new role.

“I have had two closings, am currently under contract four times and have six more clients in the pipeline.”

Photo by Ruta Smith
Ana Alexandra started a pop-up in her new apartment in march 2020

Popping up

Ana Alexandra worked her last shift in March, but that wasn’t the end of her tenure in the food and beverage industry. In fact, she’s busier than ever with Mama Ana’s Arepas, a pop-up specializing in the Colombian arepas she grew up eating.

“It all happened really fast,” said Alexandra, who spent her F&B career at various local establishments like Daps Breakfast & Imbibe, Little Jack’s Tavern, Herd Provisions and Holy City Brewing, where she worked her last shift. “I remember very clearly, it was March 15. People were slowly trickling in, and I said to my coworker, ‘This is terrifying.’ ”

Alexandra, who also runs a beer-centric Instagram account with nearly 10,000 followers, suddenly had a lot of extra time on her hands. She found comfort at home cooking arepas, a Venezuelan and Colombian dish she remembered from trips to her mother’s hometown, located just outside of Cali, Colombia.

“During the quarantine, I started cooking Colombian food because I had the extra time,” Alexandra told the City Paper in October 2020.
“To be honest, it’s three ingredients: water, salt and masa, and you kind of just have to nail the hydration and the humidity.”

Alexandra realized that working with these three simple ingredients could be “physically demanding” when she took her homemade recipe to local breweries for weekly pop-ups.

“I didn’t anticipate how much work would be involved because I’m a front-of-house lifer,” said Alexandra, who spent most of her restaurant career as a server, bartender or manager. “It’s a little bit of imposter syndrome — like, should I be doing this?”

If she ever has any doubts, they’re quickly quelled by the social-distanced crowds waiting for a plate of arepas.

“I love talking with a lot of veterans who had arepas when they were stationed in South America,” she said. “Or I’ll go to events where they’ve never heard of them. It’s really fun to educate people on where I come from. That really thrills me because I can never get enough arepas.”

Photo by Ruta Smith
Georgia Garrett switching to retail at goat.sheep.cow as their new beverage director

Staying put

The end of 2020 marked Georgia Garrett’s 15th year in the food and beverage industry, and she has no plan of making it her last despite the pandemic-prompted shift. The New Mexico native started working as a hostess at age 15, eventually making it into the kitchen with the goal of attending culinary school.

“I went from hostess to busser to line cook, and I would bake for them on the weekends,” Garrett said. “It actually took me a long time to get the chef to put me in the kitchen because he was weary of putting a young woman on the line with a group of men.”

But once in the kitchen, Garrett thrived, and she eventually made her way to New York City to study pastry at the Culinary Institute of America at Hyde Park. After interning at multiple high-end Manhattan restaurants, Garrett moved to Charleston, starting in the Husk kitchen cooking mainly desserts before exploring other parts of the industry.

“I knew that I wanted to move closer into fine dining and wine, and I was on the opening team at Chez Nous,” Garrett said. “I was definitely exploring a lot of different parts of the beverage side.”
After dipping her toes in the coffee world at The Daily, Garrett found herself drawn to wine.

“I wanted to work at The Ordinary because I wanted to work with Justin Coleman,” Garrett said. “I’m pretty persistent when it comes to following up.”

After securing the job and learning the ropes under Coleman, who served as the general manager at The Ordinary before opening up Monarch Wine Merchants on King Street, Garrett moved into the wine distribution business. She was happy and found herself thriving in the new role. Then, the pandemic started.

“Of course, 2020 hits and the tariffs were really hard on the distribution side because it takes a lot of time to get the wine from a really small village in France to Charleston, South Carolina,” said Garrett, who was furloughed in March. “That’s a huge part of distribution’s revenue because ‘by-the-glass’ is your bread and butter.”

Garrett wasn’t sure how the pandemic would affect the distribution industry, so when goat.sheep.cow. owners Patty Floersheimer and Trudi Wagner asked her to be their new beverage director, Garrett jumped at the opportunity.

“It was a nice exit — there’s no bad ties or anything, but it has been kind of a turning point,” Garrett said. “I don’t think I’ve ever thought about or wanted to work in retail, but it’s been a great fit. It’s really nice to just sell to consumers — when you’re telling someone a story about the wine, they really get excited about it.”

It’s been a wild 15 years, but Garrett’s staying put, largely thanks to the safety precautions at goat.sheep.cow., she said.

“I definitely plan to be in Charleston and be in this position as long as I can. Patty and Trudi are taking the pandemic so seriously, which is really important. I feel really safe at work,” Garrett said. “I plan to stay in food and beverage as long as possible because it has brought me the most important people in my life.”

Ng, on the other hand, says she’s worked her last restaurant shift, but her time in F&B is helping her become a pilot.

“It’s helped me build relationships because you have to build relationships with students,” she said. “(Learning how to fly) was a lot of work — you have only yourself to hold accountable. It’s one of my greatest accomplishments and one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. Being female in a male-dominated industry — it makes me feel good that I can hopefully empower other women.”

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