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  • Writer's pictureLizzie Shanahan

What is it really like to own a restaurant in Charleston?

by Lizzie Shanahan

Charleston, South Carolina, is a charming city filled with beautiful architecture, historic buildings, and great weather.

Its waterfront location attracts many tourists and people from all over the country to visit the beautiful city.

And one of its biggest attractions is the cuisine and restaurant scene as the Holy City has become a major foodie city over the past decade.

From serving local Lowcountry cuisine like shrimp and grits, or authentic Italian cuisine like homemade pasta, to even bar food like fries and burgers, Charleston has it all.

Running a high-end restaurant in a foodie city seems like a dream for culinary artists and restaurateurs.

But the stress that comes with it can be unmatched.

It's high-risk, high-reward, and for three local restaurant owners in the Holy City, so far the experience is paying off.

But not without its many challenges.

Jim McCourt, owner of the award-winning cocktail bar and restaurant Prohibition, said he was first inspired to get into the business after helping his friend open a bar.

“I have always been interested in opening an establishment. Then one of my buddies opened his own bar and asked if I wanted to go in on it with him," McCourt says. “ I thought this was the perfect opportunity to open something of our own with a friend of mine.”

Prohibition, a gastropub in downtown Charleston, serves modern American food and is well known for their delicious cocktails.

As exciting as it was to open up his pub, McCourt admitted it wasn't always easy - especially finding quality staff.

"Finding people who embodied the value and vibe of the restaurant was more difficult than many people think," he said.

McCourt was very concerned about his restaurant being a welcoming and positive atmosphere for any kind of occasion and any kind of crowd.

“We want customers to view our restaurant as one that is inviting with many different cocktails to choose from,” McCourt said.

Halls Chophouse, the award-winning restaurant at the top of King Street, is known as the best steakhouse in Charleston, and one of the bests in the entire Country.

Tommy Hall, who works for Halls Management group and is one of the owners of the famous Halls Chophouse in Downtown Charleston, also believes in having his restaurants be a welcoming and friendly environment.

“The thing that sets Hall Management Group apart is the service,” Hall said. “When you walk in the doors at one of our restaurants, you feel as if you are being welcomed into our home.”

One of the ways restaurants typically keep customers coming is through social media.

“We do a lot of social media marketing on our Instagram, highlighting different meals or cocktails throughout the week,” McCourt said.

Adam Gainer, Director of Operations for Rerun restaurants, which includes Melfis, Leon's Oyster Shop, and Little Jack's Tavern, confessed their marketing strategy isn’t textbook.

“We actually don’t do any paid advertising. We mostly rely on word of mouth and knowing with confidence that if the energy is great, the food is great, and people are having a great time, the guests will come. Along with a few Instagram posts here and there,” Gainer stated.

Owning a restaurant may seem very glamorous, however, it is typically expensive and there are difficult times that come with it.

Hall said it is important to always have some money set aside for emergencies or damage in the restaurant.

“There are so many small details with such a high cost attached,” he said. “What if something breaks? You have to make sure you have money put away for your “rainy day” fund for unforeseeable emergencies.”

He also expressed that it wasn't always smooth sailing at Halls, especially on opening night in 2009.

“The country was at the height of a recession,” he recalled. “Opening night, my dad borrowed $100 from his longtime friend to have money in the cash register. They ended the evening only making $58.”

McCourt agreed that a restaurant owner must always be aware and cautious of finances.

“You should plan to have about three months of operating cost in your bank before starting, so that you have a little bit of cushion when opening the restaurant,” McCourt said.

Gainer noted that the financial burdens add up because there is always something needing to be repaired, improved or added.

“There is always a cooler going down, a point of sale printer not working, a light bulb out, paint touch ups, a plumbing issue, you name it,” he said. “It’s what keeps the job fun and exciting because you never know what projects the next day will bring.”

But one of the most important things a restaurant owner must consider is how to keep customers coming back.

One of the best ways to do that, Hall said, is using negative feedback to improve.

“We strive to make every guest a repeat guest, so when we receive any feedback that is less than positive, we use it as an opportunity to turn the experience around,” he said. “We address the guest, and let them know they are heard, and we address the staff involved to see what we can do better next time.”


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