Opening a restaurant during a pandemic? Why not, these SouthPark owners and operators said.
by Jennings Cool
Last spring, Covid-19-induced panic spread through the hospitality industry as temporary closures became the talk of the town. For restaurant owners specifically, it was time to sink or swim: Either back away from owning and managing a restaurant completely, or embrace the challenges ahead and dive headfirst into the unknown.
Monte Smith, owner of brunch favorite Cafe Monte French Bakery & Bistro, chose the latter. Motivated by opportunity and the desire to support workers in the industry, instead of pulling away from the food-and-drink scene, he embraced the challenge of opening a second restaurant during the downturn.
“We are adding rather than taking away,” Smith says. “It is a new challenge on a personal level.”
In late 2019, Smith learned about an opening at Phillips Place, where Cafe Monte has operated for more than a decade. Inspired by his Gulf Coast roots — he was born in Galveston, Texas — and undeterred by the pandemic, Smith opened his second restaurant, Southern Pecan Gulf Coast Kitchen, in October in the space previously occupied by WP Kitchen + Bar.
“We were initially hesitant, but we believed we could take advantage of the existing facility and of the opportunity to open a new restaurant,” Smith says.
Smith had previous experience starting a business during an economic downturn — he opened Cafe Monte in 2008, in the midst of the Great Recession. But launching a new restaurant at the height of a global crisis was a whole new challenge. Even after several months in business, he still steps over hurdles each day, one of his tallest being forecasting.
“There are a lot of things that don’t relate to running a restaurant or business on a day-to-day basis that we have had to consider and work with,” Smith says.
Budgeting for the future and relying on patterns of the past is not what it used to be. With daily regulation changes and fluctuating mandates, Smith, along with many other business owners has had to be more strategic and creative when looking ahead. “Every day has a new twist and turn to it,” Smith says.
Smith was not the only one who braved the uncertainty of a Covid opening. AC Hotel Charlotte SouthPark opened in December 2019 with plans to unveil Cordial, its modern rooftop bar, once the weather heated up in spring. Pandemic panic pushed Cordial’s debut to the backburner.
“What do you do at that point? Do you stick with the schedule and force it through? Or do you wait?” says Taylor Lugar, general manager of the hotel. “We pumped the brakes.” The bar is owned by Marriott, but Cordial is a local concept created by Lugar and Amanda Gibbons, food and beverage director.
Cordial sat idle for several months. Keeping morale and excitement alive to fuel the opening was hard to maintain, Lugar says. However, summer 2020 offered a glimmer of hope: As businesses started to reopen, Lugar thought it could be a good time to unveil the rooftop bar. Cordial opened its doors in June.
“We have to adapt quickly to changing mandates and make sure we are complying with ordinances so customers feel safe and want to come back,” Lugar says.
One of the many obstacles Cordial has faced is inconsistent availability of products and ingredients. Many vendors, short on supplies, make deliveries once a week as opposed to two times, limiting menu offerings. Cordial started with a small menu of appetizers and shareable plates. Its menu has gradually expanded to include more seasonal items as business has picked up.
“We are in a tough situation, but I still feel very lucky and fortunate to still be in operation and open for business,” Lugar says.
Bentley’s, a French-American restaurant, overcame its own set of obstacles when it relocated from uptown to Piedmont Town Center in SouthPark. Owners Jim and Kay Emad decided to make the move in May 2019, well before the pandemic, but setbacks pushed the opening to June 2020.
The Emads had a vision to completely renovate Bentley’s new space, previously home to Georges Brasserie, including new lighting, a new bar design and wine room, and other enhancements. Once the pandemic hit, however, their plans were delayed.
Sourcing the materials needed to build and maintain the restaurant has been an ongoing battle, Jim Emad says. The restaurant recently added a bar menu Monday-Thursday to attract diners seeking a more casual meal.
“We just try to go day by day and solve problem after problem.” SP
On the menu: Appetizers include Louisiana barbecue shrimp and roasted poblano pimento cheese, and there’s a variety of salads and po’ boys. Bestselling entrees include a blackened redfish with crawfish creme; pecan-encrusted catfish with cilantro lime butter; and Southern fried steak with mashed potatoes and pole beans.
The vibe: “Affordable gourmet” food in a casual setting; good for couples, families or just a night out; patio seating is available.
Hours: 11 a.m. – 11 p.m. seven days a week. *Covid regulations may have impacted hours; check in advance.
On the menu: Craft cocktails; charcuterie boards with cured meats and cheeses, hand-rolled empanadas with pulled sofrito chicken, and Caribbean jerk wings with cilantro-lime ranch. New seasonal menu items include citrus shrimp with mashed plantains and roast pork sliders.
The vibe: Sleek and modern inside; expansive patio outside, perched just above the tree line with distant views of the uptown skyline.
Hours: At press time, Cordial was open Thursday – Saturday, 3-9 p.m.
On the menu: Signature dishes include oysters Bentley, caviar tuna tartare, Chateaubriand Bouquetiere, Hawaiian sea bass, bourbon filet mignon, and for dessert, Bentley’s crepes suzette and bananas Foster prepared tableside. On the new bar menu, available Monday-Thursday, expect tuna nachos, a lobster BLT, a lamb burger, New York strip and more.
The vibe: Airy and open with neutral décor; ideal for date night or an elegant dinner with friends.
Hours: Open for dinner Monday-Saturday starting at 4:30.
Featured image of Cordial