Restaurants seek creative ways to stay open, help others

Restaurants and bars across South Carolina have had to end dine-in services because of the coronavirus crisis. (Miscellany photo/Christina Lee Knauss)

COLUMBIA—On most weekday mornings at 9 a.m., the dining room at Lizard’s Thicket on Forest Drive is packed with people enjoying good conversation and the restaurant’s signature Southern style breakfasts.

On March 26, however, the tables and booths were empty. Instead, two employees behind the counter handed to-go orders to a trickle of customers coming in from the parking lot.

Lizard’s Thicket, like all other bars and restaurants across South Carolina, has had to end its dine-in services because of the coronavirus crisis.

Bobby Williams, CEO of the family-owned chain, which includes 15 locations across the Midlands and in Florence, has never seen anything like it. He and most of his family members attend St. Joseph Church in Columbia and their restaurants have been a mainstay in the community for 41 years.

“Right now our business is down 50 percent,” Williams said. “When this started, we had more than 750 employees working and now we are down to a skeleton crew of about 400 who are actively working.”

Williams said some of the restaurant chain’s servers have been retrained to be cashiers and fill other jobs, but many of them are out of work for now and have had to file for unemployment.

He said many customers are also suffering because of the crisis.

“People depend on us — we have some elderly customers that eat a meal or two with us every day,” Williams said. Losing access to the restaurant not only deprives them of a place to get meals but also one of the few social outlets they have.

Williams offered the example of a 92-year-old man who has been eating at one of the restaurant’s locations daily for the past 30 years. The day after dine-in service ended, the man came into the restaurant like usual and sat down at his regular table. Workers had to gently tell him he would no longer be able to come in. Williams said the staff made sure that someone would be available to deliver meals to the man each day, and Lizard’s Thicket is also doing this for regular customers from other locations who shouldn’t go out right now.

“It’s not about the money, it’s about taking care of them now because they’ve taken care of us all these years,” he said.

The coronavirus is also hampering another Lizard’s Thicket tradition — giving back to the community.

“During past crises, most recently when we had the floods in 2015, we’ve had our restaurants prepare large quantities of food and send it out to areas where groups of people were in need,” Williams said. “During the floods there were people sheltering in gyms and other locations and we got food out to them. Now we can’t do that on a large scale. We’re trying to find ways to get individual meals to those in need instead.”

At least the doors at Lizard’s Thicket are still open. Another landmark Columbia restaurant, Villa Tronco, has closed its doors completely until the crisis is over. That restaurant, owned by Carmella Tronco, who also attends St. Joseph, first opened in 1940 and has rarely closed its doors since.