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Some restaurants see boom after flooding; others not so lucky

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By Chris Cox
ccox@scbiznews.com
Published Oct. 9, 2015

Moe’s Southwest Grill General Manager Sean Fisher was stuck in Charleston when he saw his Devine Street restaurant on the news.

Situated in one of the hardest-hit areas of last week’s historic flood, Fisher watched helplessly as TV crews captured the water inching its way toward his restaurant doors. Across the street, Subway was almost completely underwater, and across from that the Title Max building was slowly coming down.

mellow mushroom mark virtucio
Mellow Mushroom manager Mark Virtucio said the pizza joint did double its usual business during the dinner rush Tuesday night. (Photo/Chris Cox)
“We were lucky,” he said. “They built our store 3 inches from the last recorded record flood in the area. If we were 2 inches higher, we wouldn’t have gotten any water.”

Fisher’s building will be salvaged, but his income this week might not be. The Moe’s on Devine is among numerous stores still reeling in the aftermath of the torrential downpour, particularly in that area of Columbia. Applebee’s, Smashburger and Buffalo Wild Wings are also still closed as utility workers continue repairs to the closed-off street. And nearby restaurants like LaBrasca’s Pizza are busy rebuilding after rains wrecked their location.

“You’ve got restaurants that lost power for two days and they had $20,000 worth of inventory lost,” said Carl Blackstone, president and CEO of the Columbia Chamber. “That’s a direct result of the storm. Then you’ve got others that just can’t open because they don’t have the ability to clean and sanitize.”

Blackstone said the Small Business Administration will be in town next week to help businesses like these that have been impacted by the rainfall. Put in charge by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the SBA will be able to offer low-interest loans to these companies as they work to recover, he said.

Some have been luckier than most. Down Garners Ferry Road, Eric’s San Jose has seen a 10% to 15% increase in sales each day this week, including on Sunday when it was one of the few restaurants open. Owner Eric Leon said his store tries to stay open on days like that, such as snow days, in order to gain the sales from other restaurants closing.

But it wasn’t until later in the afternoon on Sunday when he truly realized the devastation taking place around him.

“I showed up at my restaurant and it was just a normal little drizzle,” Leon said. “I didn’t really get a chance to go out and really see what everything else was.”

His restaurant wasn’t the only one seeing an uptick in sales. Pawleys Front Porch also saw an uptick earlier in the week, manager Kayla Patanian said, and Mellow Mushroom did nearly double its usual business at dinner on Tuesday after opening up from a two-day absence, manager Mark Virtucio noted.

These higher numbers are still taking a hit, however, as Columbia’s food service industry continues to work around the citywide boil water advisory. Leon said he is spending between $200 and $300 daily on paper plates, plastic utensils and canned drinks, and Virtucio said Mellow Mushroom spent close to $600 Friday morning on the same supplies.

Pawleys Front Porch is using baskets with paper liners to serve customers instead of its usual plates.

“It’s not very cost-effective, but at least it’s clean and safe,” said Virtucio, who noted the pizza spot is getting tea from its Lexington store, which is not affected by the advisory.

There are bigger things to worry about than boiling water, everyone agrees. At Mellow Mushroom, about 50 pizzas were delivered earlier this week to first responders working through the night; it was one of many restaurants chipping in where it can.

“For those that have been open, it’s a big thank-you,” Blackstone said. “It’s been a great sight to see all the businesses step up and really help the first responders and offer assistance. Taking food down to the first responders that have been working all night. It’s kind of cool.”

Fisher can only wish he could offer similar assistance. His Moe’s is losing between $3,500 and $4,000 a day, he said, and he may go two straight weeks without the reliance of the “Moe’s Monday” promotion, which nets between $5,000 and $7,000.

He’s hoping customers can regain access to his store by next Wednesday, which may also be around the same time the boil water advisory is lifted. Until then, it’s all about fixing up his shop and helping out his employees whenever possible.

“The employees who rely on this job to pay bills and money — not necessarily my high schoolers, but my big strong-hour people — I’m trying to get them hours,” Fisher said. “They’re coming in here helping us clean and sanitize. Luckily I had enough employees who had enough pride in their store who wanted to come out and help me. I’ve been very fortunate.”

Reach Chris Cox at 803-726-7545 or on Twitter @chrisbcox.

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