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Charlotte restaurant owner sees a 'taste of light' at the end of the pandemic tunnel

Clifton Freshwater.jpg
Marshall Terry
Clifton Freshwater stands inside his restaurant, Freshwaters, in uptown Charlotte.

As we approach the end of the year, we're taking a moment to look back at one of the stories we brought you in 2021. In March, we spoke to Clifton Freshwater, who is part owner and chef at Freshwaters Restaurant and Bar in uptown Charlotte. At the time, Freshwater said the restaurant managed to survive the shutdowns and capacity limits by focusing on takeout orders until customers slowly began returning to the dining room.

As part of our series Rebuilding Charlotte, WFAE's Morning Edition host Marshall Terry reached back out to Freshwater to see how the rest of 2021 has gone for the restaurant and his hopes for 2022.

Marshall Terry: So how has business been since we last spoke?

Clifton Freshwater: Well, it's been a whole lot better. The takeout's been great, the dine-in has been a lot better, catering jobs been better, and since people have been having a little bit more freedom than the last time we talked, a lot of people decided to come out and, you know, spread their wings. But it's been a lot better since then.

Terry: Now, are you seeing as much business now as you did before the pandemic?

Freshwater: I see definitely a big difference now, more different than it was before, you know. Like I say, I think people have a sense of freedom that this time here, they decided to come on out now. And so they weren't as afraid now. But it's really a lot better. We're still kind of making sure that people, when they come to our place now, we're still temperature checking them and making sure they're still wearing their masks. A lot of people they love that, you know, because they're saying you're being protective and they're a whole lot safer. People are very cautious, which is great, and we're very cautious, too. At the same time,

Terry: You, as you said, like many other restaurants, had to rely on takeout to get through the pandemic. Has your takeout business remained strong as more people venture back out into restaurants?

Freshwater: Yeah, the takeout is a whole lot better, a whole lot stronger because a lot of people like to come in and get their food and take it back to the house and eat it. You know, they feel safe there that way, too. So it's definitely a lot better than it was before.

Terry: And that wasn't something that you really did a lot before the pandemic, right?

Freshwater: Right. Takeout was definitely slower than dine-in. Most often they'd sit down and dine in, you know, before the pandemic.

Terry: Do you think that that's going to stick around this kind of uptick in takeout versus, you know, the way it was before? Do you think more people are going to start doing that from now on? Given everything we've been through with the pandemic.

Freshwater: Well, I think it's a little balance. So I think people are still cautious right now. You know, you know, the virus is still here, the new virus still here, and people are very cautious. So I think they feel more safer taking it out and going home.

Terry: What would you say is your biggest challenge here at the end of 2021?

Freshwater: The biggest challenge is one, you know, I think the labor is still a big issue for the food, you know, getting the food. Let's give you an example. We sell a lot of crab meat, right? I used to buy a crab from certain distributors, right? And crab meat has went so high that you can't touch it. I remember a pan or a can of crab meat that I used - $10.22 a pound for that can of crab meat. That same can of crab meat now is about $30 for that same can. And you can't sell it no more because you can't make no living on, you won't make no money on it. The chicken prices are up and down, and it's hard to get chicken sometimes you know what I mean, and the price is so high. And the beef short ribs, I used to sell those, but they went through the sky roof, you know. So those are some of the things you can't sell.

Some of the customers come in, they want some of those things that we try to tell them that we can't buy them right now because the cost of the is too high and most of our customers understand, you know. They'll go ahead and get something else. But the meat products and the supply products, they just went through the roof, you know? So that's one of the biggest challenges right now.

Terry: Overall, Clifton, has 2021 gone the way that you thought it would? Is it better? Is it worse?

Freshwater: It's definitely getting better than what it was, you know, because there's one time that back in 2020, I mean, you couldn't see the light at the end of the tunnel. At least now, you know what I'm saying, you can see that little bit of the light, just a little taste of the light.

Terry: What surprised you the most this year?

Freshwater: Well, one of the big things I think that surprised us is we're still here. We're still open and we still got customers that come in every week and on the weekend we still get a good amount of customers that keep us open. So to us, that's really surprising, definitely versus 2020.

Terry: Did you think maybe in 2020 it was over?

Freshwater: There's been times when, there was some days, you know, me and my wife, being there by ourselves and phones are not ringing, the door's not opening up and we're going into our savings and we say, man, I hope this doesn't last, you know, this don't last. I mean, there's a lot of times when we thought that, you know, it might be the end. Thank God there's a little window like that we could see, like I said, you look down that tunnel, boy it was dark, you couldn't even see a speck of light.

Terry: Well, here we are at the dawn of 2022. What's your number one hope for next year?

Freshwater: My number one hope is that this pandemic goes somewhere and never comes back. Let this pandemic go somewhere, go to the ocean somewhere and disappear and drown.

Terry: Well, Clinton, I think I can safely say everybody hearing this is in unanimous agreement with that. Thank you so much for taking the time. It was really nice catching up with you.

Freshwater: No problem. I appreciate it. And like I said again, I hope you be safe and I hope the whole world be safe.

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