When COVID threw a ‘curb’ ball, Jeff’s was ready
Owner of takeout business hopes Restaurant Week brings in more fans
Charleston Restaurant Week kicks off tomorrow, giving diners a chance to enjoy special menus and deals at some of their favorite local restaurants. Or perhaps discover someplace new.
And inventive dishes at discount prices aren’t the only surprises in store this week.
When this year’s participating restaurants were announced, some were shocked to see a small, mostly one-man, takeout and delivery caterer on the list, rubbing elbows with such established heavy-hitters as 1010 Bridge, Bricks & Barrels and Bridge Road Bistro.
But the success of Jeff’s Curbside is no surprise to those who have followed the career of its owner, Jeff Crist, who has built quite a resume working on the local restaurant scene since moving to Charleston from Fayette County and getting his first restaurant job at the ripe old age of 20.
Bennigan’s. Cagney’s. The Chop House. Wellington’s at Scarlet Oaks.
He’s been everything from a server and cook to general manager at those popular locations, scooping up experience and recipes along the way to season his latest venture – a takeout spot that serves up home-cooked favorites and beloved recipes from some of those former restaurants.
The journey to get to this place in his career, however, was some three decades in the making.
“My first job in the restaurant business in Charleston was waiting tables at Bennigan’s at Charleston Town Center mall,” said Crist, now 52.
“Bennigan’s had an incredible training program that I credit for a lot of the success that I’ve had over the span of more than 30 years in this business.”
He eventually left Bennigan’s to become a host and server at Cagney’s and, even though he was only 21 at the time, was promoted to management in two years. He worked there until that downtown restaurant closed in 2001, the was hired to open The Chop House later that year.
Crist also worked in catering at Wellington’s at Scarlet Oaks, was the general manager at Tomahawk’s in Jefferson and has served as a guest chef through the years to help raise money for local non-profits through a variety of fundraising dinners.
That last role led to him working in the non-profit world for a few years by day, while keeping his toes in the hospitality industry at night. But he never quite lost that itch to be in the kitchen and, eventually, had to scratch it.
So in August 2019 he opened a small takeout spot on the corner of Ruffner and Washington streets on Charleston’s East End.
“It was an area that was considered by many to be undesirable, but that’s all I could afford so I had to make the best of it,” Crist explained. In fact, he said, that’s why his whole curbside concept was born.
“Quite frankly, I knew attracting customers to stay and dine in that location would be a challenge, so offering curbside service was my way of eliminating concerns about personal safety as an excuse for not patronizing my business.”
Things went well for a few months, but a lack of business forced him to close his doors in November 2019. Then, in the most unusual of lucky breaks, COVID soon came along and forced restaurants to transition to curbside service to stay alive.
While that was a difficult transition for some, Crist had already been doing it, so he reopened his takeout business to meet that demand in a location on Roxalana Road in Dunbar.
“When the quarantine was imposed, offering curbside service was vital and I was able to take advantage of that,” he said. “I didn’t have to go through the struggle of getting the word out that I was offering curbside service, because it was already in my name.”
Not only that, he believes the specific food he offers became even more in demand due to the pandemic.
“Because of all the stress and uncertainty we were all going through, it seemed like people gravitated towards comfort foods that took them back to simpler, happier times,” he said. “And I was able to do that, in part, through my Cajun chicken pasta and other dishes that provide comfort amid the chaos.”
Dishes like meatloaf, shrimp or chicken fettuccine alfredo, baby back ribs and stuffed chicken. There’s also a bourbon-glazed salmon, enchiladas and more.
As his COVID-fueled business grew, so did his need for more space, and one year ago in January 2021 he moved to his current location in North Charleston, where he continues to offer pick-up, takeout and limited delivery most days from the mouth of Campbells Creek to Cross Lanes, including the cities of Charleston, South Charleston, Dunbar, St. Albans and Nitro.
And he continues to fine-tune his business model.
“The biggest changes I’ve made is closing to the public at lunchtime so I could focus on providing catered lunches for large groups, plus streamlining my menu to devote more time to the things I do best.”
That’s crucial, he said, when you’re running a small operation. And by small operation, he means … himself.
“On most days, I’m a one-man show in the kitchen, but I do have a handful of people – including my mother, brother and stepfather – who help me when I have a large catering order or need help prepping food. I don’t know what I would have done without the help of my family over the holidays.”
Now that he’s settling into a grove, he’s ready to reach a wider audience, and that’s where Restaurant Week comes in.
“It’s an opportunity to get myself in front of an audience who may have never heard of me, or who have heard of me but haven’t ordered before,” he said. “There’s no question the publicity will be a huge benefit.”
For $20 this coming week, customers can take that plunge by trying a three-course meal featuring some of the most-ordered items on his menu.
For starters, there’s a mixed garden salad with house-made sweet vinaigrette and the popular mandarin orange-pineapple salad that harkens back to his days at Cagney’s. Entrees include his best-selling Cajun chicken pasta, another Cagney’s fave, and a fan-favorite meatloaf. Dessert is bread pudding, with a choice of caramel or bourbon sauce.
“I’m really excited to see some loyal fans and hopefully lots of new faces this week.”
Then if all goes well, he may start planning his next move.
“For now, I just want to continue growing my catering business to make it the best it can be, but down the line I’d like to offer cooking classes and add a Chef’s Table private dining option for special occasions,” he said.
“The public has been incredibly supportive so far, and I’ll forever be grateful for that.”
IF YOU GO: Jeff’s Curbside, located at 3137 Washington St. W. in North Charleston, is open from 4-7 pm Monday through Thursday and 4-8 pm Friday and Saturday. For more information, call 304-590-4160 or visit the restaurant’s Facebook page.
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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.