May 2020

It goes without saying the world will never be the same after COVID-19. Virtually every single concert, sporting event, and religious service has been cancelled. In February most people hadn’t heard of “Zoom” meetings online. But “Zoom”, along with “social distancing” and “essential workers” are terms widely used today and they are not likely to be retired any time soon.

Typically, May is a month of celebration and a warm-up to summer activities. Mother’s Day weekend ALWAYS resulted in Capitol Market having hundreds of customers buying hanging baskets and other beautiful flowers for their mothers and sweethearts. College and high school graduations were cause for parties and dinners to celebrate loved ones’ achievements. The West Virginia State Capitol grounds was the site for the “Vandalia Gathering” during Memorial Day weekend. “Live on the Levee” concerts every Friday evening at Haddad Riverfront Park were a fun opportunity to get together with friends and enjoy the free music on the banks of the Kanawha River. None of that is going to happen this month.

Everyone is giving up a lot these days. The activities already mentioned, no relaxing with friends over drinks after work, and no romantic date nights. School has been cancelled indefinitely and thousands of West Virginians are out of a job.

However, there is a LOT happening. Life is moving slower than molasses and people have no choice but to take a breather. Neighbors are more “neighborly” and looking after each other, friends and families are re-connecting, and the word “HERO” looks completely different these days. There is long overdue and much deserved respect for the medical professionals, first responders, and grocery store workers. There is an atmosphere of patience and kindness palpable when we go out on those “essential errands”. None of us will ever look at the world in the same again. “Normal” next year will be extremely different from “normal” in 2019.

There is a strong effort to support local businesses during the time of the shut-down and afterwards, as well. Two owners of popular local restaurants were interviewed for this column. Tracy Abdalla, owner of “Soho’s”, and Frank Gonzales (Mi Cocina de Amor and Gonzoburger) talked about the effect the pandemic has had on their establishments.
Tracy Abdalla had been the new owner of “Soho’s” at Capitol Market for only a few weeks when COVID-19 caused the pandemic that basically shut down the world. After purchasing the iconic Italian restaurant located in the “turn of the century” train station and thankfully being able to retain 95% of the staff, business was good. It was doing very well, then the shut-down took place.

While part of the waitstaff had to be temporarily laid off, those who remained got busy and took the opportunity to deep clean and sanitize the entire restaurant, literally from the ceiling to the floor. Like many other restaurants, Soho’s began serving the entire menu as carry-out and available with GrubHub and Door Dash.

While Tracy intends to keep the classic Soho’s menu, he has plans for some new additions to the menu when the restaurant is able to be completely open to the public. He added a few televisions and high-top tables to the bar area to expand the available seating. Paying homage to the historical importance of the train station’s structure, he was able to acquire several original photographs of the building and the surrounding area which were taken during the early 1900’s. They have been enlarged, framed, and will be hanging throughout the restaurant for diners to enjoy.

Last fall, Frank and Julia Gonzales expanded their dining capacity at Mi Cocina de Amor to include the outdoor area next to the establishment. The “Margarita Garden” was constructed with a stage for entertainment. They invested a lot of money and time in the project expecting to offer outdoor dining along with a terrific entertainment venue by spring. Frank and Julia also own Gonzoburger, which is around the corner from Mi Cocina de Amor. They opened the Mexican restaurant 6 years ago and have staff who have been with them the entire time. When the pandemic made its way to West Virginia, they also had to make painful decisions by laying off staff who’ve been with them from the beginning. At the time this is being written, they’ve just opened back up for curbside carry-out.

As businesses slowly re-open, “social distancing” will still be observed. Some policies may be different. Tables will be farther apart and there may be longer than usual wait times to be seated. Let us all simply be grateful we can get out and enjoy a meal.

These are just two of the terrific restaurants in Charleston locally owned. These gentlemen were the first ones I called on and both were so kind as to give me a bit of their time and tell me a little of their stories.

It is clear there is a spirit of sharing and caring for each other. Instead of competing for customers, there is a desire to SHARE the customer base. The local restaurateurs are looking out for each other. That same quality is showing up BIGTIME in so many ways in the Charleston community. I am willing to bet it continues long after COVID-19 is gone.
Stay safe!