Photo by Ruta Smith

Last Shift

Zen Asian Fusion bartender Shana Swain sensed things were about to change when surging coronavirus cases forced the West Ashley restaurant to temporarily close in March. 

“That was the first time in my 19-year career that I realized my job was vulnerable,” said Swain, voted 2020’s best bartender by City Paper readers. 

Restaurants like Zen are feeling the pandemic’s burn everyday, and employees working at these establishments have been essential to the continuation of service. For Swain and others in the industry, safety risks and industry uncertainty are leading to altered career paths. 

Zen’s temporary closure forced Swain to explore other options, eventually signing up for an online real estate class with the goal of earning a license, while also homeschooling her two children. “When we became quarantined, I knew it was something I had to carry out,” she said.  

Swain spent 14 years at Manny’s Mediterranean Restaurant before joining the team at Zen Asian Fusion five years ago. Throughout her career, she’s shown an ability to connect with guests, and many Zen regulars have become close friends, she said. 

“The key is being as relatable as possible,” Swain told the City Paper over the summer. “It’s one thing to make a really good drink, and it’s another to secure the trust of the guest.”  

Becoming a licensed real estate agent in the middle of a pandemic wasn’t easy, Swain said. The licensing process took five months, and after another 90 days of intensive training with Carolina One Realty, Swain is happy to report that she’s now a state-licensed real estate agent.

“The transition has been a huge learning curve, but it’s flowed pretty well,” she said. “I know I made the right decision.”

Swain is still bartending while she builds a client list — in fact, she’s worked as an agent or bartender every day since early August. 

“I have been spread pretty thin, but I’m very motivated to build my brand like I did in food and beverage,” she said. “The owners at Zen knew this was a process I was taking. I’m working diligently to make sure [my real estate] clients are taken care of, and I’m working hard in food and bev to make sure my guests are happy.” 

Swain has buyer, seller and investor real estate clients and hopes to fully transition to her next career by August 2021. It hasn’t been easy phasing out of a career that has brought her so much joy, she said, but the relationships gained over the last 19 years will help with future endeavors.

“My customers and guests are longtime, staunch regulars, and my entire working career has been based on the need to cultivate human relationships,” she said. “That has helped me retain those relationships and helped these people realize that ‘Oh, Shana could help me buy a house.’ I think they trust me in whatever industry I join.” 

Last Shift is an ongoing series featuring food and beverage workers who are moving on to new careers because of the coronavirus pandemic. If you’re making a career change out of food and beverage, send an email to parker@charlestoncitypaper.com.