Ruta Smith

Charleston ordered non-essential businesses to shut their doors on March 26, the latest collateral damage from efforts to contain the deadly coronavirus. Local restaurant dining rooms had been closed for a week by that time, forced to reinterpret their menus for take-away service.

As one of the “essential services” on the city’s expansive list, many restaurants have continued under the new normal. Others decided it was time to stop serving customers for the foreseeable future. As Charlestonians attempt to navigate these murky waters, we decided to speak with some of the restaurant owners and chefs who are piecing together how to respond during a pandemic.

Jackrabbit Filly closed on Sun. March 22, a move that co-owner Corrie Wang says came as a response to increased awareness nationwide. “We don’t know who has this, and we can’t really police who everyone comes into contact with,” says Wang. “It just didn’t feel worth it anymore.” Kenyatta O’Neill, co-owner of Nana’s Seafood & Soul and Nana’s Uptown, echoes a similar sentiment. “Most of our employees are family members, so we thought a lot about the risks of continuing to operate. The most important thing is the health of all of our families.”

The Harbinger Cafe and Bakery is trying to send a similar message to their employees, saying in a statement, “We can’t ask our staff to leave their homes if the mayor is telling them not to. It seems like it’s our responsibility to close for these next 14 days and be an example to our community that we take this virus seriously.” Cru Cafe, Purlieu, Poe’s Tavern, and all the restaurants under the Brooks Reitz-Tim Mink empire — Leon’s Oyster Shop, Melfi’s, Little Jack’s Tavern, and Monza Pizza Bar — are other notable eateries that have suspended take-out service within the last 10 days.

For those who have decided to push ahead, health is the top priority. Enhanced safety precautions are the name of the game for Babas on Cannon, which has added additional menu options for guests in need of coffee, meals, and pantry staples.

“We have changed so many of our procedures,” explains co-owner Marie Stitt. “The space is totally different. Customers can only access the restaurant through the front, and we have timers set so we make sure everyone washes their hands every 15 minutes.” The restaurant is disinfected every 30 minutes by the Babas staff.

The Babas mobile app has also helped the cafe function with contact-free service. “We had the app before all this started, but only a handful of people were using it,” says Stitt. “Now, 95 percent of our orders come in through the app.” In addition, all payments can be made through the app, eliminating the exchange of credit cards or cash.

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Brown’s Court Bakery shut their doors back on March 16 but restarted wholesale services on March 26 to support some of the restaurants offering take out. “Normally, we sell wholesale to about 75 places in town, and we have shrunk that to around five to eight,” says head baker David Schnell. “We’re leaving the bread out on the porch to eliminate all human interaction.” Despite the restart of his wholesale operations, Schnell still feels there is too much uncertainty associated with the coronavirus to reopen the retail store. “Looking at the numbers and data, I’m just not comfortable until I know what we are confronted with here.”

Restaurants have also been forced to decide whether take out and delivery services create enough cash flow to make it worth the extra time and energy required to retune the business model. “We were still doing pretty well, which is the crazy thing,” says Wang. “That said, we only did take out service for one week, and everyone was being overly generous with tips. We didn’t feel it was right to have people coming in and overspending.”

At Nana’s, the overhead associated with running a restaurant makes take out-only service unrealistic for him and his mother, O’Neill says. “The economy is already slow, and it just wasn’t panning out for us financially,” he says. “We were only making enough to buy the supplies we needed to cook the meals.”

Over at Babas, Stitt and husband Edward Crouse are doing their best to keep their team employed. “Our size gives us agility and allows us to be more nimble, but it hasn’t been easy at all. The time and labor hours are just crazy. A task that used to take 60 seconds to complete now takes five minutes.”

Open or closed, owners say the local community has been an essential part of assisting their small, local restaurants. “We’ve had a ton of support locally. People are ordering take out and telling us how much they want to help out,” says Stitt. “It’s clear that our community values local businesses.” Whether your favorite neighborhood spots have decided to close or remain open, continue to support these small businesses owners who are doing the very best they can during this difficult time.

Find restuarants offering takeout and delivery online at charlestoncitypaper.com/goodtogo