As far as Thanksgivings go, in the truest sense of the word, Secret Sandwich Society owner Lewis Rhinehart might have a hard time topping this one.
After a trying year that included a COVID-crushing blow to his iconic Fayetteville restaurant this spring, followed by a devastating fire that totaled the building in the early hours of Nov. 5, Rhinehart is waking up today with something most would find hard to muster, under the circumstances.
A whole lot of gratitude.
“Our insurance was really good,” he said. “The building was fully covered. The restaurant was covered. We have business-interruption insurance that will carry us for 12 months. We’re really very lucky in that respect.”
But it certainly took a beat to find that silver lining.
“The first two weeks after the fire were pretty rough,” he said this week. “Really rough, actually. But this community has rallied behind us by offering support, volunteering to help and hosting fundraisers for our employees. They’ve really lifted us up. So now, the mourning period is over and the cleanup begins.”
So clean up he did, starting Monday, when crews brought in a big dumpster to sift through the rubble and try to save anything they could.
“There may be a table or two we can salvage, I don’t know,” Rhinehart said. “The building has to come completely down, though. It’s a total loss.”
But as Rhinehart has reiterated since the embers were still smoldering on his dream, “I am not a quitter,” he said again, with even more resolve than before. “I like to win. I like to succeed. I want to come back stronger.”
What exactly that looks like might still be unclear, but this much is certain — the Secret Sandwich Society plans to rebuild in the Fayetteville community that helped make it such a beloved hangout, most likely in the same location. And those long-rumored plans to expand in Charleston? They aren’t just gossip anymore.
“Yes,” Rhinehart said, “we’ve bought the building where the beauty school is on Capitol Street and we do have plans to put a restaurant there.”
But first, Rhinehart is taking the winter off, to collect his thoughts and take a much-needed break from the grind of restaurant ownership.
He’s actually taken a job at a restaurant at Snowshoe Mountain Resort, where he’ll be greeting guests at Top of the World’s new upscale 10 Prime Steakhouse while plotting his next move.
“I know that may sound a little crazy,” he said, “but man, it’s been quite a year. I think taking a little time away, doing something different, is exactly what I need right now.”
With COVID-19 still bearing down and winter approaching, bringing slower business and unpredictable weather, it’s not a good time to start rebuilding anyway. As a result, Rhinehart said he believes this “reset” is not only well-timed, but also will make him better equipped to face new challenges in the spring.
The primary challenge — how to build a new restaurant that can not only survive, but thrive, in the era of COVID-19.
“I know I’m not going to be able to build this new gleaming palace of sandwiches,” he said. “The cost of building materials is astronomical right now and, because of COVID, the model most restaurants are built on won’t work anymore. Let’s face it, the restaurant industry will probably never fully recover from this, or at least not recover to life as we knew it before. To succeed, we need a new concept, a new model, built around less indoor dining and more outdoor spaces and takeout.”
To accomplish that, he envisions that the “new” Secret Sandwich Society will include a top-notch, high-output kitchen downstairs, where the former dining area was, and a more open-seating concept upstairs, with additional outdoor options.
Rhinehart already owns the property next door in Fayetteville that houses the eclectic Great Googly Moogly shop, including the stretch of land between the two businesses, so that space might play into his plans.
“We could fill that area with outdoor seating, add a patio and maybe a stage for when live music returns,” he said. “Maybe we start up a food truck that can serve customers there while we rebuild in the spring.”
The challenges are many, but so are the possibilities.
The Secret Sandwich Society gained a cult-like following over the past several years thanks to its cool vibe, craft beer and epic gourmet sandwiches named after Secret Service code names for some of our country’s former presidents and first ladies.
Since it’s meteoric rise in popularity was fueled not only by locals, but also by a throng of fans making the one-hour trek south from Charleston, you’d often hear the inevitable on-again, off-again speculation of the restaurant opening a another location in the capital city.
Rumor has it they had gone so far as to look into a few specific spots around Charleston, but none of them ever worked out.
Rhinehart said the Charleston School of Beauty Culture has the space at 210 Capitol St. until next July, at which time he and David Bailey — the man who started the original Pies & Pints and Secret Sandwich in Fayetteville, and who bought the building — will map out plans for a future Charleston restaurant. The goal is to open as early as 2022.
“The building needs a lot of work, we need investors, plus we’ve obviously had setbacks with the fire and COVID,” Rhinehart said. “We’re probably looking at opening there in 2022 at the earliest. We’re definitely heading in that direction, but we’re still pretty far out.”
Maybe that eventual expansion in Charleston, along with a rebirth in Fayetteville, will make for an even better Thanksgiving in years to come.