Amid Coronavirus economy, Greenville restaurants innovate to feed the masses and stay afloat
On day two of the ban on dine-in service at restaurants in South Carolina, local eateries were picking themselves back up and innovating not just to add something new for customers but to survive.
On Friday Topsoil Kitchen & Market had been converted to mostly a market. The dining room, which just a week ago had housed Sunday brunchers this day was empty save for a few salaried restaurant staff. Chairs were pushed aside resembling pews, as if waiting for people to arrive.
A few did, but in the age of the new coronavirus, they didn’t stay. They didn’t sit down.
Where once diners sat at Topsoil, now produce, local cheese, milk, freshly baked bread, prepared soups, White Lily flour and even toilet paper filled the shelves and display cases.
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And as of Thursday, Topsoil added pizza too.
Mama Tara’s, a concept conceived by the restaurant’s head baker, Ron Rawhoof Friday was in full swing, adding another element to the restaurant’s offerings.
“It’s a glimmer amidst all this stuff,” said Patrick McInerney, co-owner of Topsoil. “There’s a wall in front of a lot of people right now. We’re trying to find our way around that.”
Mama Tara’s is twofold. It provides another element for customers, and it also provides another income stream for Rawhoof, who otherwise would not have enough work to warrant a full-time position.
Topsoil had to layoff most of its employees, but was hoping to bring them back one by one as work on the restaurant’s farm ramped up and as business in the market picked up.
After the launch Thursday, Rawhoof was busy.
Mama Tara’s will prepare a curated menu of Chicago style pizzas in Topsoil’s kitchen, essentially using it as a ghost kitchen since the offerings will only be available for takeout or delivery.
“I was completely happy being the lead baker here,” Rawhoof said. “I make ciabatta, baguettes, sourdough. I was busy. Things changed, and we woke up in a different world and therefore Topsoil woke up in a different world, so we have to make do with the skills we have.”
Change is an opportunity.
Adding groceries, boosting the market side
Just up the road a bit, the owners of Oak Hill Café & Farm were also ramping up their market offerings, filling the shelves and refrigerators with prepared soups, casseroles and other goods.
The restaurant had also added delivery to provide greater convenience to customers.
At The Anchorage, owners Beth and Greg McPhee had opted against adding takeout offerings since the restaurant was not set up for that kind of structure, Greg said. Instead, they looked to other ways they could add and came up with an online marketplace.
For now, customers can go to the restaurant website and order everything from produce from Horseshoe Farm (the restaurant’s farm) to prepared items like spicy pork lasagna and Thai beef fried rice, and even rolls of toilet paper all available for pickup 3 – 6 p.m. Tuesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday at The Anchorage.
“Nobody’s in a good condition but we are in about as good a position as anybody could be given the circumstances,” Greg McPhee said. “That’s difficult to say when you’ve fired your whole staff. But we are looking out for the longevity of the project and that people’s incomes aren’t impacted as much as possible. There’s no doubt that we’ll reopen it’s just what its gonna take and when its gonna happen.”
At Fork & Plough, the farm-chef-owned restaurants and market had converted to a full-on market by Friday. The chairs had been removed and the tables that once sat diners were topped with items like bread, coffee, rice and other dry goods, as well as paper towels, toilet paper and gloves.
The butcher case was stocked with prepared items like chicken pot pies and shepherd’s pie, and desserts along with the usual cuts of locally-sourced meats.
The coolers were packed with eggs and cheese and milk and veggies too.
“We made the decision if we were gonna do this we were gonna do it as well as we could,” said Shawn Kelly, executive chef and co-owner.
In addition, Fork & Plough is offering what Kelly said were real comfort foods. Ramen on Friday, fried chicken Saturday and Thanksgiving dinner planned for Sunday.
Turning to food trucks
Some restaurants turned their innovation to food trucks. Table 301 had launched an all-fronts effort to offer patrons a little bit of normalcy and enjoyment during a time of intense uncertainty.
The restaurant group’s six restaurants all set up online ordering and to-go menus, and several are offering daily prepared take and bake meals.
In addition, there were plans Friday to begin offering cooking classes, recipes and other tips via Instagram Live.
The restaurant group also re-instated its food truck, Highway 301. The truck had been mostly used for catering but Wednesday, it opened its window to serve customers downtown.
Food trucks remain permissible, confirmed Beth Brotherton, City of Greenville director of communications and neighborhood outreach, as long as they keep it as take-out only service.
The response to Highway 301 was so tremendous, that by Thursday, Table 301 had decided to make the food truck a regular thing. Highway 301 will serve 11 a.m. – 3 p.m. Monday through Saturday from the parking lot on the corner of Main and Broad Streets.
“We are just doing everything possible to keep as many employees working as long as we can,” said Carl Sobocinski, founder and president of Table 301 Restaurant Group.
Automatic Taco, which began as a food truck and opened a brick and mortar location at The Commons in September, had also dusted the truck off. The restaurant was also working on other ideas like partnering with The Community Tap Trailside to offer a “Virtual Date Night.”
The idea included food from Automatic Taco and wine from The Community Tap, along with a virtual pairing set for 7 p.m. Friday all for $50.
At Topsoil on Friday midday, Rawhoof was at work in the kitchen baking his pies. The menu is available via social media and the restaurant will take orders by phone or social media 4 – 8 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday for pickup or delivery within a 5-mile radius.
Rawhoof’s pizzas are Chicago style, but not of the deep-dish ilk but more what he calls “Tavern style,” the kind you might get at a neighborhood joint. They have a thinner, crispier crust, lots of toppings and are cut into squares, and at least according to Rawhoof, are the best kind of pie.
This wasn’t how Rawhoof imagined the rollout of his pizzeria dream, but Friday, he, as McInerney and others in the local restaurant community, was doing his best to keep bringing great food to the table, whichever table it was.
Lillia Callum-Penso covers food for The Greenville News. She can be reached at [email protected] or at 864-478-5872, or on Facebook at facebook.com/lillia.callumpenso.