On April 2, 2019, Mark and Libby Chatfield opened Ristorante Abruzzi, in the space previously occupied by Paterno’s in West Virginia Power Park. For over a decade, the two had run Charleston Bread Company, and were making a long-awaited expansion into a full-service Italian restaurant.
Abruzzi did well for several months, gaining positive reviews, and gradually becoming a part of the community. Its spacious dining room, the walls painted with classic Italian landscapes and lit with soft light, is the definition of welcoming. And then it closed, as part of the COVID-19 shutdown, less than a year after its opening. Sales dropped by over 75%, and roughly two thirds of the staff were laid off. Now, it has to find a way to come back.
Abruzzi isn’t alone, and neither are Mark and Libby; there are more than 12,000 businesses in Charleston, according to the Chamber of Commerce. These businesses, in turn, employ nearly 85,000 people. The food industry employs the third most, behind professional services, and attorneys, according to Business Insider. Not to mention is the fact that food is what the majority of teens spend the most of their money on; just ahead of clothing, cars and cosmetics. Those places are also where a lot of teens get their first work experience. And those businesses are also struggling now.
These numbers aren’t just numbers. They are people’s lives, and livelihoods. It’s no secret that before COVID, our state was struggling economically. However, some progress was being made — if you walked down Capitol Street, you could see more new shops and restaurants, less rundown buildings, and fewer homeless people. We can’t let this erase that progress, and prevent even more, but how we do that is a difficult question.
The most important thing to understand about this situation is that it is all uncharted territory. Even businesses that have been around in Charleston for decades are experiencing something new. This year, the Peanut Shoppe will celebrate its 70th anniversary as a Capitol Street sweet shop. The store is small, warm and filled with the smell of roasted nuts and sugary candy, things that several generations carry fond memories of.
During the shutdown, they were closed for their longest period ever: nine weeks, beating the previous record of 10 days. Adam Kimble, the present owner, said that even during the water crisis of 2014, probably the closest thing we’ve seen to the COVID shutdown in recent memory, the store managed to stay open. According to Kimble, the water crisis helped create a foundation for the decisions that were made during the shutdown.
For the Peanut Shoppe, that decision was to close completely, because there was simply “no point” to staying open. The Peanut Shoppe is a very small, intimate store, and despite having no lack of support from the community, Kimble said that his decision was what was best for his family.
“We’re a working family ... all we do is work,” Kimble said.
For Kimble, and many others, these are impossible choices to make, and whichever way you go, there are costs.
Keeley Steele, in addition to serving as a city council member, owns three restaurants on Washington Street East — Bluegrass Kitchen, Tricky Fish and Starlings Coffee and Provisions, all open for at least a decade. All of those restaurants attempted a carry out service for at least part of the shutdown. Also, Steele began selling provision boxes — containers of food and supplies, the excess materials that her closed restaurants could no longer use.
The situation was difficult. Though Steele said she knew that “regulars have been grateful that feel safe to order from us,” she also described the incredibly stressful and wearing conditions involved in operating not just one, but three different businesses.
“Carry-out has generated the bare minimum of revenue in order for us to stay open. No one is making money over here,” she said.
Steele also described the toll that the situation took on her employees.
“Though we are open for far fewer hours we seem to be working harder,” she said. “Our staff is equally weary of talking on the phone, of wearing PPE and trying to give good customer service.”
The biggest news probably came just as reopening was beginning, and the growing importance of outdoor dining became clear — Bluegrass Kitchen would close. Unlike Starlings and Tricky Fish, it has no patio or outside deck, with the entire restaurant being indoors.
Bluegrass often feels like a real home kitchen, with the noises of cooking and cleaning mixed with music, often live; but not anymore.
“That felt like a pretty big deal,” Steele said on the closure of Bluegrass. “I hope that folks will be kind to small business owners as we navigate the new.”
While restaurants like Tricky Fish and Abruzzi will be relying on carry-out, and outdoor service, many other businesses, particularly ones not in the food industry, will be looking at a very different venue: the internet.
The men’s clothing store on Virginia Street East has gone by a few different names over the years, but today is Tony the Tailor, run by Anthony Paranzino. Elegant clothing lines the windowsill, at the top of a flight of steps, creating the feeling that you are entering a world of grace and beauty.
Prior to the shutdown, Paranzino had a very successful online service, which the business utilized greatly in the last few months. Clothing orders were shipped all over the country, with, according to Paranzino, far greater proceeds being made outside this state than locally.
However, it still just isn’t enough. In the business world, there are some sources of revenue that just don’t come back; for Paranzino, this is the money spent on senior proms. Despite the online service, and the store’s status as an institution in Charleston, Tony the Tailor’s earnings are 20% down.
Taylor Books encountered a similar problem. Since 1995, the business operated as a combined coffee shop, art gallery and bookstore, with an online service added most recently. The store is warm and cozy and has earned a status as a Charleston meeting place. You’ll often find downtown workers busy at chairs and tables, friends meeting for drinks and music, and groups of people outside, taking photos in Brawley Walkway.
Jamie Miller, the manager at Taylor Books, expressed enormous gratitude toward the store’s supporters for their help. A GoFundMe created for Taylor Books raised over $25,000 in its first eight hours alone, and the online service has plenty of traffic. But, it still doesn’t make up for the revenue.
The online service is run through bookshop.org, a company that provides online shopping for Taylor Books and countless other bookstores. Unfortunately, it also takes a cut of their proceeds — a very large cut, in Taylor’s case, 50%, which during the pandemic has risen to 80%.
Though the store has reopened now, there are still some problems — the Used Book Sale, a major service that Taylor Books offered in the last few years, is likely not going to return anytime soon, and confusion, mixed messages and unrealistic expectations abound, making things even harder. Despite the fact that the gallery, bookstore and coffee shop are all open, Miller expressed concern about the public’s viewing of the situation. Customers expect things to move fast, but for safety’s sake, they can’t. For the foreseeable future, Taylor Books just isn’t going to look the same.
Taylor Books, along with the Peanut Shoppe, Tony the Tailor and many others, is not just a business, but a small piece of our community. The businesses of Charleston, particularly those downtown, often band together for special events, and to give one another support. But the problems that individual shops have are happening on a much larger scale, to the community at large. Traci Higginbotham, the owner of Art Emporium, a downtown art gallery and framing shop, described these problems.
“Downtown shops rely heavily on foot traffic from employees who work downtown and the downtown events,” Higginbotham said.
Unfortunately, many employees are still working from home, and most events are canceled, forcing many businesses to lose a large source of revenue.
“It’s concerning,” Higginbotham said. “I haven’t seen much foot traffic of people just browsing and shopping downtown. ... I think it’s strictly been destination shopping.”
Higginbotham mentions a few solutions to this, including promotion of small-scale outdoor events, but things are still rough.
Art Emporium is exceptionally bright and colorful, with quirky, often handmade artwork and knickknacks filling the windows. However, its main source of revenue comes from its framing service, which requires heavy personal interaction. To make matters worse, most of the framing suppliers the store uses closed before Art Emporium did, and still haven’t reopened.
In just two months’ time, sales at Art Emporium dropped by 93%, compared to this time last year.
The downtown community isn’t the only one that exists in Charleston; all over the city, areas of shops and restaurants exist, struggling to stay afloat. One such community is Elk City, on Charleston’s West Side. Before the shutdown, Elk City was on the rise. It’s a much more recent revival in the city, with many of its major businesses opening within the last several years.
Bob Herrick, a co-owner of Winter Floral and Antiques, one of the few older shops in Elk City, shared what has happened there.
“Elk City is slowly seeing a return of people on its streets, but it has a long way to go,” he said. “We are not out of the woods yet. I expect many small businesses in our country won’t recover and will close even with additional help from our government. Many have already.”
To say that Winter Floral is a flower shop is an understatement. Gorgeous displays can be seen from down the block, and make just stopping in a lot of fun. One of Winter Floral’s biggest sources of revenue comes from catering to large groups, the lack of which is a big problem. According to Herrick, they have still found it hard to pay for expenses like heat and electricity that, despite the business being closed, continued during the shutdown.
But there is some light.
“I am hoping that the businesses in Elk City will continue find a way to weather the storm together,” Herrick said. “With each other’s help and encouragement, we have so far and hopefully will in the future.”
The shutdown has taken its toll, but businesses are finding ways to move forward, even in this surreal new world. At Ellen’s Ice Cream on Capitol Street, every employee checks and records their temperature daily, and works behind masks, gloves and Plexiglas. Despite a six-week period of closure, the store is slowly coming back to life.
The recently opened Locked and Coded Escape Rooms will still be opening a new room later this year, following a brief delay.
And across town, at Elk City Records, after a period of appointment-only shopping, the store is now fully open. According to the owner, Phil Melick, things have gone fairly well.
“Progress has been slowed, but our family’s lost none of its enthusiasm,” Melick said. “Maybe doing without the neighborhood’s restaurants and retailers for a while has made people even more appreciative of one another and what we have to build on.”
Many of the business owners around town agree with this last statement. Despite overwhelming adversity, they are hopeful, and looking to the future. And that’s incredible. But that doesn’t mean it’ll be easy. Our expectations have to be realistic, and we have to be ready for change. Many business owners express great uncertainty. We have to accept one thing — life is going to be different for a while. Businesses will struggle, and despite our best efforts, some might fail.
“This business is a rather nasty one,” Steele said.
Steele means that the food industry, along with shopping, entertainment and anything we do for fun, is a difficult one to stick around in at the best of times. There’s a lot of competition, and it takes plenty of time and work, along with no small amount of good luck and support. Right now, they need even more of that.