Bowens Island Restaurant counter

In 2017, close to 90 restaurants opened in the Charleston, South Carolina area. The national restaurant industry is experiencing a food and beverage labor crisis, but for a city such as Charleston–already stretched with tourism and hospitality labor needs–that shortage exacerbates an already high level concern for many restaurateurs, new or already established.

To address these issues, as well as be able to increase sales volume, many Charleston restaurants are opening with, or have since adopted, a counter service-plus front-of-house model that has guests place an order at the counter, and adds a table touch follow-up once the guest sits down with their food, reducing the number of servers who need to be on the floor. What that “plus” is varies from owner to owner, but those using the model note that it can bridge a service gap for guests, and work for restaurants across the country.

For Nicholas Dowling, co-owner of the forthcoming Daps Breakfast, combining counter service with table support just made sense. “This is a breakfast spot, laid back, with community tables, so it just fits,” Dowling explains. “We wanted to still interact with guests but have them lead the dining experience, where the food service is flipped, like a bar where guests come to the counter knowing an order.”

Glass Onion
The Glass Onion

For the 40-seat restaurant, the owners envision no more than seven total front-of-house employees for each shift. For this to work, “everyone knows how to do everything,” he says, from checking on tables, running food, closing tabs, or bussing and resetting. Customers place an order at the bar then leave their tab open as they choose a table and drinks are made. Technically, this means food can be fired earlier than traditional dining, thus resulting in more table turnover, and more orders. If guests wish to linger, they can always order more from any of the staff members, and especially from those that check on the table.

In North Charleston’s Park Circle neighborhood, brothers Adam and Matt Randall operate the CODfather, a “British chippy” restaurant serving fish and chips. They have a general “fast food or deli service” model where guests order at a counter and close the tab before going to a table.

“We chose this model because it’s generally how all fish and chips shops operate in the U.K.,” Adam says. “I didn’t really think about it as much of a choice. I wanted to follow tradition.”

Chris Stewart
Chris Stewart. Photo Credit: Jonathan Boncek

But now that he’s been in operation for a while, he has high praise for the model. “It works more efficiently without seating charts and all that stuff,” he says, stressing, like Dowling, that his staff must be able to execute all position, from expo, line cook, cashier, or food runner. He pays $5/hour for that wait staff, who pool tips every shift. With a busy restaurant that serves up to 400 orders a shift, he says that model results in high dollar tip-outs worth the while of the “servers-plus” model.

Chris Stewart, chef/owner of The Glass Onion in Charleston’s West Ashley area, has been using the counter service-plus model for a decade. He stresses, “It’s not for everybody. You should seriously consider it; it takes a lot of planning.”

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The Glass Onion operates with a full-service model at dinner, and counter service at lunch and brunch. During counter service hours, Stewart says his kitchen turns solid 10-minute ticket times. Recently for brunch, they served 280 people in one shift, something that couldn’t be accomplished in the small restaurant with traditional table service.

Stewart’s focus is making guests feel welcomed and not awkward when they enter his restaurant. “You need an order spot that is super obvious,” he says, “and you need people on the [dining] floor if you want guests to spend more money.”

Bowens Island
Bowens Island Restaurant. Photo Credit: Wally Gobetz/Flickr

For Hope Barber McIntosh, whose family has owned and operated Bowens Island Restaurant since 1946, counter service just made sense.

“When my great-grandmother started this, it was basically her, my great-grandfather, and a man who cooked the oysters,” she says. “So it really was out of necessity.”

Currently, the James Beard America’s Classic restaurant serves approximately 400 plates on a busy weekend night, not counting the trays of oysters. They accomplish that volume with a very lean staff: five kitchen employees, one to two bartenders, one busser, and one person taking orders.

“There’s usually a line, so it’s easy to see where to order,” McIntosh says. “We’ve always wrestled with idea of having such a long line, but now it’s become somewhat iconic. We focus on the fact that if you’ve waited that long in line, you should get your food quickly. It works for us.”

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Stephanie Burt is the host of The Southern Fork podcast and a writer based in Charleston, SC. Her bylines regularly appear in The Post and Courier, Extra Crispy, Zagat, and Bake from Scratch, and she focuses on researching heirloom ingredients, interviewing passionate people creating good food, and in the kitchen, perfecting her roasted chicken recipe. (Photo Credit: Leslie McKellar)