Secret Sandwich Society buys Capitol Street building to expand in Charleston, but first comes the tough task of rebuilding after a devastating fire in Fayetteville.
As far as Thanksgivings go, in the truest sense of the word, Secret Sandwich Society owner Lewis Rhinehart may have a hard time topping this one.
After a craptacular year that included a COVID-crushing blow to his iconic Fayetteville restaurant this spring – followed by a devastating fire that totaled the building in the early morning hours of Nov. 5 – he’s waking up today with something most would find hard to muster under the circumstances.
And that’s a whole lot of gratitude.
“Our insurance was really good,” he explained. “The building was fully covered. The restaurant was covered. We have business interruption insurance that will carry us for 12 months. We’re really very lucky in that respect.”
But it certainly took a beat to find that silver lining.
“The first two weeks after the fire were pretty rough,” he acknowledged this week. “Really rough, actually. But this community has rallied behind us by offering support, volunteering to help and hosting fundraisers for our employees.
“They’ve really lifted us up,” Rhinehart added. “So now the mourning period is over and the cleanup begins.”
So clean up he did, starting this past Monday, when crews brought in a big dumpster to sift through the rubble and try to save anything they could.
“There may be a table or two we can salvage, I don’t know. The building has to come completely down, though. It’s a total loss.”
But as Rhinehart has reiterated since the embers were still smoldering on his dream, “I am not a quitter,” he said again, with even more resolve than before. “I like to win. I like to succeed. I want to come back stronger.”
What exactly that looks like may still be unclear, but this much is certain. Secret Sandwich plans to rebuild in the Fayetteville community that helped make it such a beloved hangout – most likely in the same location – and those long-rumored plans to expand in Charleston are not just gossip anymore.
They’ve bought the building at 210 Capitol St. that currently houses the Charleston School of Beauty Culture and have plans (knock on wood) to open another restaurant there as early as 2022.
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But first, Rhinehart is taking the winter off to collect his thoughts and take a much-needed break from the grueling business of restaurant ownership.
He’s actually taken a job at a restaurant at Snowshoe Mountain, but he’ll just be greeting guests at Top of the World’s new upscale 10 Prime Steakhouse, while plotting his next move.
“I know that may sound a little crazy,” he said with a chuckle, “but man, it’s been quite a year. I think taking a little time away, doing something different, is exactly what I need right now.”
With COVID-19 still bearing down and winter approaching – bringing slower business and dicey weather with it – it’s not a good time to start rebuilding anyway. As a result, he believes this “reset” is not only well-timed, but will also make him better equipped to face new challenges in the spring.
The primary one, being how to rebuild a new restaurant that can not only survive, but thrive, in the era of COVID.
“I know I’m not going to be able to build this new gleaming palace of sandwiches,” he said.
“The cost of building materials is astronomical right now and, because of COVID, the model most restaurants are built on won’t work anymore. Let’s face it, the restaurant industry will probably never fully recover from this, or at least not recover to life as we knew it before. To succeed, we need a new concept, a new model, built around less indoor dining and more outdoor spaces and takeout.”
To accomplish that, he envisions the “new” Secret Sandwich Society will include a top-notch, high-output kitchen downstairs, where the former dining area was, and a more open-seating concept upstairs with additional outdoor options.
Rhinehart already owns the property next door that houses the eclectic Great Googly Moogly shop, including the stretch of land between the two businesses, so that space pay play into his plans.
“We could fill that area with outdoor seating, add a patio and maybe a stage for when live music returns,” he said. “Maybe we start up a food truck that can serve customers there while we rebuild in the spring.”
The challenges are many, but so are the possibilities.
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For those unfamiliar, Secret Sandwich Society had gained a cult-like following over the past several years thanks to its cool vibe, craft beer and epic gourmet sandwiches named after Secret Service code names for some of our country’s former presidents and first ladies.
And since it’s meteoric rise in popularity was fueled not only by locals, but also a throng of fans making the one-hour trek south from Charleston, you’d often hear the inevitable on again, off again speculation of the restaurant opening a another location in the capital city.
Rumor has it they had gone so far as to look into a few specific spots around Charleston, but none of them ever worked out.
“Yes,” he confirmed, “we’ve bought the building where the beauty school is on Capitol Street and we do have plans to put a restaurant there.”
Eventually, that is.
Rhinehart said the school still has that space until next July, then he and David Bailey – the man who started the original Pies & Pints and Secret Sandwich in Fayetteville, and who bought the building on Capitol Street – will map out plans for a future Charleston restaurant.
“The building needs a lot of work, we need investors, plus we’ve obviously had setbacks with the fire and COVID. We’re probably looking at opening there in 2022 at the earliest.
"We’re definitely heading in that direction, but we’re still pretty far out.”
Maybe that eventual expansion in Charleston, along with a rebirth in Fayetteville, will make for an even better Thanksgiving in years to come.
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Steven Keith is a food writer and restaurant critic known as “The Food Guy” who writes a weekly column for the Charleston Gazette-Mail and has appeared in several state, regional and national culinary publications. Follow him online at www.wvfoodguy.com or on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Pinterest. He can be reached at 304-380-6096 or at email@example.com.