Five Points restaurants battle perception of violence

It’s 6 p.m., on a football Saturday and business is hopping at Pawley’s Front Porch in Five Points. Fans were three deep at the bar early in the day and now families and couples are chowing down on Pawley’s gourmet burgers at nearly every table. Folks on the open front deck along Harden Street eat, drink and watch Auburn tangle with Georgia.

It’s hard to believe this block is the epicenter of late-night violence in the shopping and entertainment district near the University of South Carolina. Pawley’s, at 827 Harden St., is just three doors down from a now-closed club that police said was a hangout for members of a national gang, and less than a block away from the scene of a random shooting that left an 18-year-old USC student paralyzed last month.

Gamecock fans Matt and Donna Webber of Greenville and their friends John and Brittney Naylor said they talked about the shooting while driving to Columbia on Saturday, but decided to come to Five Points for their pre-game meal anyway.

“Those things happen late at night, and I felt it was an isolated incident,” Matt Webber said. “I just wanted a good burger, and I wasn’t going to let that stop me.”

That’s music to the ears of Five Points’ restaurateurs, who are battling the perception that the area isn’t safe because of a spate of violent incidents over the past few years. Most of the incidents happened between midnight and 2 a.m. on occasional Saturdays and Sundays, an analysis by The State showed, among throngs of young people who crowd the 700 and 800 blocks of Harden on the weekends.

To counter that perception, some of Five Points’ longtime restaurants – such as Saluda’s, Mr. Friendly’s and Yesterday’s – are closing earlier, offering promotions or generally trying to ramp up evening business.

“You have to keep making sure your patrons are taken care of and make them happy,” said Richard Burts, a Five Points Association board member who ran several restaurants in Five Points beginning in 1988. “You have to worry about what you can control, and that’s giving your customers the best experience possible.”

Promoting the area

Mr. Friendly’s and its sister restaurant, Cellar on Greene, have launched a promotion that other restaurants in the area may follow. During November they are offering 30 percent off the check for a diner and a guest if they bring in a receipt showing they had been to another Five Points business after 5 p.m.

“We’re just trying to get people not to be afraid of Five Points,” said Mr. Friendly’s co-owner Harold Ham. “We’re trying to promote Five Points as a whole and be a good team player.”

Five Points has been the scene of a series of violent acts over the past two years beginning with the beating of 18-year-old Carter Strange in June 2011. The latest incident was the Oct. 13 shooting of USC freshman Martha Childress that left her paralyzed.

In between, there have been shots fired, robberies and stabbings, many of which are attributed to what law enforcement authorities have said is a national gang that is attempting to claim Five Points as its turf.

However, nearly all of the incidents have occurred after midnight, on weekends, when most of the restaurants have closed.

“We close before all the hoopla starts,” said Gabriele Evans, a long time manager at Garibaldi’s which is a half-block from the 800 block of Harden Street on Greene Street. “At that point, all of those Garibaldi’s customers are home and tucked in their beds.”

Five Points cycles

Eight business owners interviewed agreed that Five Points is as safe as anywhere else in the city before midnight. And all noted that there are three distinct cycles in a Five Points day:

Pawley’s owner Kirkman Finlay, a state representative from Columbia and former City Council member, said his outside bar would be very popular with younger patrons late at night, but he has begun closing at 10 p.m. in response to the outbreak of violence.

“From 10 to 11 there is definitely a transition and we’re closing in front of it,” he said. “We’ve been scaling back our bar business for the past three years. Our entire after-dinner bar business is just not worth it. It’s too dangerous.”

Business sees declines

Duncan McRae, owner of Yesterday’s, said his business is off about 12 percent from a high in 2008. “And that’s (the profit margin) what we’re working for.”

Ham, of Mr. Friendly’s, said his business is down about the same, but attributed some of that to the federal government shutdown. After the shutdown, federal prosecutors attending the nearby National Advocacy Center at USC dropped by 70 percent. Those prosecutors often walked to Mr. Friendly’s and Cellar on Greene.

“They’re watching their dollars,” he said of the Justice Department.

The drop-off in business also has spawned rumors that some restaurant owners are contemplating leaving the area or selling their businesses.

Two of those mentioned by several sources were Harper’s and Garibaldi’s.

Harper’s proprietor David Lance said the rumor “is not true in our case. We feel we are on the positive side of all (the problems). We feel confident the city will handle security.”

Contemplating a move

Garibaldi’s owner Jeff Balish said his family has been looking for a new building for the venerable restaurant for about two years, but not because of the late night incidents. He said Garibaldi’s is the only one of five restaurants that his family owns here and in Charleston and Savannah that leases space.

“We’re trying to own all our own real estate,” he said.

Balish has about two years left on his lease and is looking around for a possible location. “But it would have to be really compelling. I don’t know.”

He added that the rise of The Vista, Main Street and restaurants in other parts of the city are contributing to customer loss in Five Points. “People have other options and are trying other parts of the city.”

Saluda’s owner Steve Cook said that the violent incidents are having an effect on business in the area. But he added that customers shouldn’t be scared off by random, late-night incidents.

“It’s like Central Park” in New York, he said. “You don’t not go (during the day) because there are a bunch of scumbags there at 2:30 in the morning.”

Related stories from The State in Columbia SC