As many of you know, I’ve been working in F&B in Charleston since the '90s. Through all those years, I’ve seen many versions of the Charleston food scene. I remember the late '90s, full of huge California Cabs and foie gras butter over ribeyes, the micro green fad of baby everything (baby bok choy, baby spinach, baby carrots etc ...). The fine dining boom of the early 2000s, tables set with up to four glasses and three forks. Then the long-winded farm-to-table boom where servers became thespians with 15 minute spiels complete with the names of the actual pig and the farm that it grew up on (Can I please get a cocktail before you begin?). And now where are we? I would encapsulate Charleston’s current food scene as more casual atmospheres but with elevated cuisine that leans more in the healthy direction. Delicious salads brought to you by people wearing denim. A lot of Edison bulbs and exposed ceilings, open kitchens, and a larger, more in-depth focus on mixology. The era of the huge leather-bound booth died along with the stomach pains of eating super rich food drenched in butter and fat.
I remember getting hired at Hank’s Seafood in 2001. The manager told me that I could have the job, but it would be a tryout of sorts. Serving there was viewed as a coveted position, one that I didn’t quite deserve in the eyes of the manager. It was a great gig. I easily averaged $250 a night. I’m not saying this to boast, I’m divulging this to make a point. In 2001 I lived on Maverick Street, right across from Hampton Park. I lived in a small, two bedroom house by myself because the rent was $575 a month. Life was sweet. I was actively single, making $250 night or more, going out after work to Meritage, Big John's, Charlie’s Little Bar, or AC’s — give me three Gran Mas six ways, please. Life was easy. I could make my rent in two shifts. Two. The scene knew it too. We would all go out and spend $80 after work without hesitating. It was a gluttonous time.
Where are we now? Now many industry folks are struggling. Seeing as how Charleston is now a food destination that it never was in 2001, why is that? Several reasons, one being an explosion of eateries for the consumer to choose from with new places opening up every month. The pool of customers grew but the pool of restaurants for those customers to choose from exploded, so now everyone is doing less business. Two, real estate prices have skyrocketed. Now a two bedroom house near Hampton Park will run you $1,800 a month, so even if a server is making what I made in 2001, and I assure you most are not, now it takes seven shifts to make rent, where it used to take two. Grand Marnier has become PBR. Another reason for the demise of F&B worker prosperity is the fact that the minimum wage for a server has not changed in 25 years (let that sink in). We’re holding steady at a whopping $2.13 an hour.
When you couple skyrocketing rents with a thinning out of business due to a million new restaurants, which cause the lowering of server incomes and a lack of hourly wage increases, you get to where we are now, a serious staffing crisis. And it’s not just in the front of the house, kitchens are also struggling to fill positions.
Here’s a funny story from one of Charleston’s best chefs in regards to this situation. As you may know, I am a part of a podcast called EffinBradio, along with Lindsay Collins and Nikki Fairman. We recently interviewed a local award-winning chef and when asked about the staffing crisis, he told us this:
"It’s gotten so bad, that recently a guy walked into the kitchen with a chef coat on asking for a job. I said, 'Can you point to your dick?' He looked confused as to what I wanted so I repeated myself, 'Can you point to your dick?' Then he successfully pointed to his crotch, and I said. 'You’re hired.'”
So what do we do, how do we fix this? The obvious answer is to pay workers more. F&B gigs aren’t as sweet as they used to be and Charleston isn’t as cheap as it used to be so most people aren’t as attracted to the industry as in the past. The industry needs workers but workers aren’t willing, so make the gig more attractive. Simple, right? That is an answer, but it might not be that simple, having many friends that own and operate restaurants here in town, I can tell you that even a super popular establishment operates at a profit of about 11 percent, and that’s a busy, busy place. Most places are struggling to provide even a small profit stream for their investors. So, in many cases, paying workers more would sink the whole ship.
Because it’s gotten more expensive to execute a successful restaurant in town and more difficult to staff one, we are now seeing alternative business plans. Food trucks like Short Grain put out very elevated, outrageously delicious cuisine. Pop-ups like 2Nixons — ramen done by Chef Jeffrey Stoneberger — bounce all over town. And then you have skeleton crew restaurants like Spero, or where I work at Bar Normandy, restaurants run completely by a two or three person crew — no hostess, no dishwasher, no backwaiter, that are stripping down the whole experience to the only thing we as diners really want, a plate of delicious food. Maybe this is the future of the Charleston restaurant scene. Maybe we are witnessing the bubble popping right in front of our mouths.