Tomas and Lynda Prado

 This year has brought immense change to the Charleston restaurant industry. Everyone has felt the burn — food and beverage employees were left without work while establishments looked to pick up the pieces. Managers and owners found themselves back in the kitchen, plating dishes inside takeout boxes. And those are the ones that made it. Temporary COVID-19 closures led to the permanent loss of local institutions like Nana’s Seafood & Soul downtown, McCrady’s, Jestine’s Kitchen, Minero downtown, Martha Lou’s Kitchen and others. 

We write about it everyday, but it’s impossible to fully understand the struggle of the folks out there working in restaurants everyday to keep their businesses afloat unless you’re in it. We checked in with a few of those chefs and restaurant owners to see what they’ve learned so far, where they see the Charleston restaurant industry in 2021 and what it will take for them to keep their doors open.

What have you learned since the pandemic started? 

Sean Mendes

Owner of Gillie’s Seafood, James Island

“It made me become a smarter businessman and gave me an added awareness to be more frugal and prudent when it comes to where the money’s going. Our menu is fairly large. You start to look at ways that you can cut the fat.”  

Tres Jackson

Owner of Sorghum & Salt, Downtown

Tres Jackson | Photo by Rūta Smith

“Running at limited staff or half capacity forces you to look at things and reduce or eliminate things to preserve cash flow. We have been incredibly blessed by support from people in the community who have been helpful on all levels. I would say that social media (from Ashley Sanders) and support from things online that our in-house staff has done is very helpful and has been a learning experience for us all, myself included.”

Ty Raju

Co-owner of Savi Cucina + Wine Bar, Mount Pleasant

“The biggest thing we learned, or at least reinforced, was the need for flexibility. Everything we’ve done, I think we would have done anyway. We had all the tools in place to launch takeout, delivery and curbside, and giving people access to our whole menu online was something that we instituted really quickly.” 

What has been the hardest part of the last six months?

Tina Schuttenberg

Co-owner of Kwei Fei and Micho, James Island

Tina Schuttenberg | Photo by Rūta Smith

“We went from mid-March until June without a day off. It was brutal, but it makes you dig deep. It was frustrating to feel like the government wasn’t going to make decisions that would help support or guide us. I was in fashion before food. Maybe as far from a scientist as possible, but I’m having to create protocols? Luckily the restaurant industry is built with safety in mind. We kept reading and talking to people in the community to come up with a situation where everyone is safe and comfortable.” 

Orlando Pagan

Executive chef of Wild Common, Downtown

“It’s definitely been difficult for everyone. For me, the hardest part is not having my team. Right now, it’s just me, my chef de cuisine and my sous chef. A lot of people think ‘It’s fine dining, it’s expensive, they make a lot of money.’ We’re lucky that we have an events side, so we will cross-utilize ingredients, especially vegetables. We don’t know what the future holds, so I’m just trying to cook good food.” 

Dianne Crowley

Co-owner of Tavern & Table, Mount Pleasant

“Our hardest challenge is keeping people away from each other. Our customers know each other, so that is the challenge. Our customers have been loyal to us from the very beginning. For the most part, people have been extremely nice and thankful that we are willing to put ourselves on the line.” 

Mickey Bakst

Former general manager of Charleston Grill, Downtown

Mickey Bakst | Photo by Rūta Smith

“For me, restaurants are about community. Unfortunately, over the last six months that community has been broken up because of social distancing, which changes how everything feels. Restaurants are about the experience, the sights and the sounds of people and those have been radically curtailed.” 

What will it take for your restaurant to survive 2020? 

Tina Schuttenberg 

“Kwei Fei was in an usually lucky position to survive this situation. Our food is unique to this market, travels well and sits at a price point that makes it an affordable indulgence. To make things stronger for the future, we’re going to diversify a bit by adding kits and private label sauces. Micho is going to be a hustle for a long time. Honestly it might take a small reinvestment, but we’re confident it only gets better from here.” 

Tres Jackson 

“I guess survival for us is more about staying healthy and trying to stay the course while running tightly on expenses. I would also say that this has been and is going to continue to be a marathon and not a sprint, and I have real concerns for anyone both physically and mentally who is in this industry. While the physical has been taxing on many of us operating with limited staffs and capacity, the mental grind has been many times more challenging.” 

Tomas Prado

Co-owner of Spanglish, West Ashley

“For us to survive, we need Charleston to continue to support us as we evolve in these changing times. It’s been tough for restaurants as well as guests to try and get back to a normal routine. We are slowly progressing towards that and hope that we can build a sustainable business model moving forward.” 

When the pandemic is behind us, what will be different about Charleston’s restaurant industry?

Vivian Howard

Owner of Handy and Hot, Downtown

Vivian Howard | Photo by Stacey Van Berkel

“I don’t think the meal kits or family-style takeout is going to go away. As a restaurateur, I don’t want them to go away. I think that dining out will become something that we really appreciate, particularly at high end restaurants. We now know it’s a luxury and perhaps we should have been thinking of it as such pre-pandemic.” 

Mickey Bakst

“I think there’s going to be a lingering effect. I think there will be a long term repercussion in the way people do things. People are going to have to look really closely at profitability because nobody is going to be making a lot. Restaurants are going to have to be very tight on their staffs and control costs radically.”   

Sean Mendes 

“I would probably say the number one change will be the sanitation and cleanliness of restaurants across the board. There will also be more attention paid to how we set up these dining rooms and how we interact with customers. This will also help operators manage the margins better. We run on pretty tight margins, and when this thing hit, there weren’t a lot of restaurants that had a surplus of money in the bank.” 

Tomas Prado 

“I think restaurant culture will change post-pandemic. I think restaurants will look at takeout, delivery and outdoor dining as a larger part of their business model. I also think restaurants will start looking into options to better compensate staff and offer a better live-work balance to its employees.”

Ty Raju 

“I think a lot of guests and patrons are going to start to look a lot more for an experience rather than just a place that makes really good food. The hospitality, ambiance and how the whole menu works together.”