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'It was a really scary time': Columbia restaurant on brink of closure fought to stay open

The War Mouth in historic Cottontown relied on loyal customers and PPP loans to stay afloat. It worked.

COLUMBIA, S.C. — A Columbia restaurant on the brink of closure kept business alive through the pandemic.

Owners of The War Mouth worked relentlessly to keep the doors open, even delivering food themselves.

This story is just a small part of our conversations with local farmers and restaurant owners for our series "Surviving COVID: Farm to Table."

RELATED: 'Things are looking up': Lexington County land steward's CSA saved his business

The War Mouth sits off Franklin Street, near North Main in historic Cottontown.

"[We're] A little over 5 years old...We specialize in Midlands cuisine, specialty beverages and hospitality," said Owner and Chef of The War Mouth, Rhett Elliott.

The restaurant occupies an old auto shop, helping revive an old commercial district to bring visitors back to North Main.

Credit: WLTX

About a year ago, when COVID-19 forced restaurants to close, Elliott and his co-owner, Porter Barron, reworked their business concept.

They shifted from full time dine-in to full-time take-out.

"A lot of the joy of serving and the joy of cooking for people, a good percentage of that turned from joy to worry," said Elliott. "Worry that you're not making good decisions for your dining public."

Credit: The War Mouth (Instagram)

"The restaurant business became a very different animal," added Barron. "I'd drive delivery myself for us. Every day it was something different, just treading water trying to survive."

A big challenge for the owners was maintaining their menu due to changes at area farms.

"We had farm co-ops from Charleston, they quit delivering to Columbia altogether. We had to drive to Charleston to get some vegetables a couple of times," said Elliott. "A lot of our vegetable guys, we've been with them for a long time - here and in the other restaurants we've worked. We're all buddies and we knew we had to get together and figure it out together."

"It's been so difficult to plan for anything more than a week out because you're just gonna get the rug pulled out from under you," Barron explained. "Whether it's regulatory or [you're] unable to find some ingredients all of a sudden that was key to what we were doing."

In November of last year, as the restaurant approached its 5th anniversary, Barron wrote an Instagram post saying they faced imminent closure. 

"It was a really scary time," he said.

Customers rallied to support the restaurant. Pair that with federal assistance, The War Mouth was able to stay afloat.

RELATED: A look at South Carolina businesses since the pandemic started

Credit: The War Mouth (Instagram)

The restaurant never closed and kept a skeleton crew for months during the pandemic.

"PPP has been crucial for us to keep the lights on," said Barron.

Now, the restaurant is easing back into regular service, but at a lower capacity while maintaining health safety protocols.

Menu items, featuring ingredients from local farms, are selling out. It's a win-win at both ends of the farm-to-table strategy.

"We hope that we can just hold on a few more months and beat this thing for good," said Barron.

"I think we'll make it," said Elliott. "Just trying to figure out ways to keep our head above water while also being respectful of the times we live in."