Holy City's small businesses hung tough during height of COVID
Updated: Feb 2
If you asked KinFolk restaurant owners Joe and Kevin Nierstedt in June 2018 what kind of restaurant they were opening, they would not have said Nashville hot chicken.
They might have said BBQ or fried chicken; definitely not Nashville hot chicken.
But thanks to the pandemic - and all the chaos that went with navigating public health advice, local mandates, and strong public opinion - the Nierstedt brothers opted for a simple and popular menu that could easily manage takeout.
So Nashville hot chicken it was.
“Before COVID-19 was even a thing, we had already started slowly shifting away and embracing that Nashville hot chicken shack,” Joe stated. “COVID-19 helped fast track that change going to a counter service concept and no more sauce bottles on tables.”
Like thousands of other small business owners in March of 2020, the brothers were hit with the unexpected.
COVID-19 left small businesses to their own devices when it came to staying afloat under unprecedented circumstances.
Due to so many unknowns, these businesses were only able to play by ear and adapt their operations as the days passed.
To this day, small businesses are still feeling substantial effects from COVID-19.
And in many cases the various changes in operations have become permanent to the businesses.
COVID-19’s effect on business operations
Glenda La Rue, owner of Palmetto Scent Studio, knows mask requirements and social distancing won’t be around forever, but she believes many of the changes to her operations will have lasting influence.
“We'll probably try to keep outdoor tables,” she said. “Also, the new way of having folks sample scents using disposable strips. Then I think, as best as possible, we'll still try to keep people’s parties separated.”
Before the pandemic, Palmetto Scent Studio had no outdoor seating, a completely different process of scent sampling and often hosted parties back-to-back.
Outdoor seating will continue to be an option for customers, while reservations are highly encouraged to keep everyone separated and comfortable.
As for scent sampling, Palmetto Scent Studio is encouraging limited surface contact with the disposable scent strips.
With adaptations forced because of the pandemic, the custom fragrance bar took on these new processes that will keep customers and staff safe no matter the circumstances.
Joe and Kevin also know a little something about new processes.
“Operationally, we made changes that kind of benefitted us a lot that were forced upon us,” Joe continued. “Once you look at it through a different lens, we’ve been able to lighten labor by focusing more on take out and we added online ordering, which we didn’t have when we first opened because we wanted to put so much emphasis on dining in here.”
Even little changes at Kinfolk, like taking sauces off the tables, helped shift the restaurant into the Nashville hot chicken shack it is today.
Ultimately, the pandemic allowed Kinfolk to make some key changes that lead to their current successful take out centric business model.
Not all small businesses in the Lowcountry have the opportunity to change their operations as much as others.
Kelly Hylton, owner of Kelly Hylton & Company hair salon, found that being a close contact business made things difficult.
“When we reopened, the hardest part was making sure all clients and staff felt comfortable coming into the salon,” explained Hylton.
The biggest implementation for the salon was masks, since social distancing was not possible in the salon industry.
“We had clients begging to get in and would wear whatever we asked them to wear just to have their hair done,” Hylton continued, “Then we had a few people that would fight us on wearing the masks, but our policy was strict and if you weren’t going to abide by it then we were not the right salon for you.”
Putting safety first
On top of making operational changes, small businesses had to prioritize their staff members’ safety and well-being.
La Rue kept her staff safe by enforcing mask mandates, limiting the amount of surfaces touched and spacing out reservations.
Similarly, Joe and Kevin adopted guidelines set forth through the Palmetto Priority Program as a way to ensure customers they were doing everything possible to keep patrons safe.
Through the Palmetto Priority program, restaurants agree to follow a comprehensive list of obligations to keep employees and restaurant goers safe.
There were suggested guidelines for Hylton to follow to keep her staff safe; however, she took these as mandatory vs. suggested.
“Masks on both the client and service provider were mandatory, six-feet social distancing, only one client per service provider, cleaning and sanitizing between each client and any signs of illness we asked that you reschedule,” said Hylton.
One of the lasting fallouts from the pandemic has been staffing issues - something that has hit the retail and service industries hard. KinFolk and many other restaurants are still struggling to keep employee spots filled.
At the beginning of the pandemic, staffing wasn’t a huge concern for Joe and Kevin.
“We got lucky. We’re friends with the owners of the Royal Tern and they shut down their operations entirely for at least a month, maybe a little longer,” said Joe, “so, a couple of those team members came over and offered us support.”
This, however, did not last through the whole pandemic.
When asked about whether they originally faced staffing problems, Kevin mentioned, “We still are.”
According to National Council on Compensation Insurance economists Francesco Renna and Patrick Coate in their Quarterly Economics Briefing, despite workplaces reopening, “employers are encountering difficulties in filling open positions amid high unemployment and record job postings.”
To counteract this nationwide staff shortage, Joe and Kevin are embracing their online ordering and to-go options to maintain a lighter staff.
“We kept the dining closed a lot longer,” Joe mentioned, “Mainly to counteract short staffing and then just not policing people who want masks.”
Decision-making during a pandemic
When it came to the operations of small businesses, a lot of owners had to make big decisions about issues they never expected. And there wasn’t a playbook on how to handle a pandemic.
Because of this, La Rue signed up for newsletters to keep her informed on South Carolina small businesses.
La Rue and Joe and Kevin also relied heavily on the local government to stay up-to-date on the latest regulations for being able to stay open without penalty.
Since the circumstances were so unprecedented, constantly playing everything by ear was a challenge.
La Rue found it nerve-wracking.
“I think it was just because we didn't know at that time how far into summer it was gonna go and thinking summer’s our busy time here, and how that was gonna affect it,” she said.
Although Kinfolk was allowed to remain open by strictly doing take-out, it was still frustrating to Joe and Kevin not knowing when dining-in could reopen, especially with the influx of island goers.
“It was frustrating,” said Kevin. “At the time, we were just kind of dealing with it. Honestly, like he said, a lot of people came down to Kiawah and Seabrook from bigger cities. They had record numbers as far as real estate goes, so the community grew a lot and it just kept us really busy.”
To stay informed on when salons could reopen in the state, Hylton followed the news intently for any updates she could get in regard to her small business.
“We had to sit and watch the news everyday for Gov. McMaster to give us some kind of end date. For me, it was just the unknowing of when; would it be a month, two months, three months, six months?” - Kelly Hylton, owner, Kelly Hylton & Co.
Surviving economic stress during unprecedented times
Many businesses were not able to survive the economic stress of Covid-19.
According to the SC Chamber of Commerce, 10% of the state’s small businesses shut down for good during the pandemic.
To stay afloat, La Rue reached out to the Palmetto Scent Studio customer base and promoted the online store.
To break even, La Rue and her husband and co-owner Jeff took care of any online orders that came in.
“We expected our retail to be very little,” La Rue continued, “So, I think we did better, probably because we didn't staff up.”
On the flipside, Joe and Kevin had to close Kinfolk the second night of reopening because they were one of the very few options available due to their to-go model and could’t handle the abrupt influx of business.
Moreover, the type of food served at Kinfolk benefitted the restaurant greatly during the pandemic.
“Fried chicken, pizza, Chinese food, like those types of restaurants, it’s not really the common food that people cook at home, so I think that also is what kept us busy,” said Kevin. “It’s not like a taco spot; everyone can make tacos at home.”
For Hylton, appreciation of the salon industry kept her small business on its feet when reopening.
“Our industry was definitely greatly appreciated during Covid because I don’t think people realized how much having your hair done does for your mental health,” Hylton continued, “the general mood was gratefulness and gratitude to be alive and be able to sit in a chair and have a luxury service provided to them.”
COVID-19 has been a learning experience for small business owners in the Lowcountry.
“My two top things would be financial planning for crises, everyday crises, and how
precious life is and to be thankful everyday,” Hylton said.
To other small businesses, Joe Nierstedt advises owners to not be afraid of change.
“Be committed to being able to pivot on stuff you’re committed to out of the gate.”