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A community over The Barrel
Resisting unchecked food-and-bev expansion
I’ve mentioned previously that one of the reasons I felt compelled to start The Food Section was I was worried about folks who didn’t have a local food journalist to call when important stories were going untold. But I’m still fielding calls from the Charleston area, which is how this story got started.
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The last job that George Richardson worked before retiring as a disabled veteran was at Carole Fabrics, an Augusta, Georgia company that makes window drapes and roller shades. Richardson was responsible for going over the embroidered silks and patterned linens that arrived from all around the world, inspecting the bolts for dropped stitches and other flaws.
After leaving Augusta in 2010, Richardson bounced around his home state of South Carolina until 2019, when he moved into the elevated marsh-side house that he’d built a decade earlier for his mother.
Although she’d passed away, he was still surrounded by family in the historic Gullah community of Beefield, a series of properties just north of the bridges linking James Island to Folly Beach. Richardson’s childhood memories are populated by kin: When he went swimming or prayed or played out back in craters cut by Civil War cannonballs, he was in the company of first and second cousins.
“This is one of the few remaining communities in the Charleston area where everyone is blood related,” Richardson says, pointing out the mature oak trees planted in one straight line down Beefield’s only road, each one designating a relative’s holding.
Almost as soon as Richardson came back to Beefield to stay, he sensed something was off.
“My community seemed like it was lost,” he says. “They asked me if I would consider taking over as president [of the neighborhood association]: All I kept hearing was, ‘The Barrel, The Barrel, The Barrel.’”
While Richardson didn’t yet know the full extent of what they meant, he could recognize a neighborhood fabric in danger of fraying. In a scenario that’s become familiar across the South, an outgrowth of the city’s flourishing food-and-beverage sector was threatening to destabilize an aging, working-class community. But in a man-bites-dog twist, Beefield was able to knock down The Barrel.
“We welcome change,” Richardson says. “We don’t mind change. But we’re not going to permit you to change us to satisfy you.”
With rents on the rise and more thirsty young white people moving to the area, Chad Reynolds in 2014 bootstrapped a craft beer store in a former surf shop on the edge of Beefield. The residential strip that Beefield comprises is a quiet offshoot of the island’s main commercial avenue, so an outsider’s view of it is shielded by a margarita bar and a snow-cone shop.
The squat building on an adjacent lot that Reynolds bought for $283,000, or about ten times what the building alone is worth, was built years ago by Dave Richardson. Richardson was one of the first Black carpenters in the Charleston area to own his own construction company: He and his wife used the unadorned 700 square feet to sell bait and fishing gear.
After Richardson died, another Richardson turned the space into a clubhouse of sorts where the community gathered for fish frys and crab cracks. In 1979, Dorothy Richardson, the founder of a downtown Charleston funeral home and a Richardson by marriage, inherited the property from her husband. She sold it off in 2002; a surf gear salesman took up residence soon thereafter.
Calling upon his experience in the construction industry, Reynolds remade the building as The Barrel, updating it with reclaimed wood. But it wasn’t large enough to contain his vision for a good-timey hangout where scrappy cooks could serve fancy grilled cheese sandwiches and customers’ dogs could run free. Without alerting the city, he set up an outdoor patio, complete with a stage for live bands, and invited like-minded food truckers to park in the venue’s 16 designated spaces.
Since moving to the area three years ago, Kate Wagner and her husband have spent many afternoons at The Barrel with their golden retriever, Maggie, and Sadie, their Great Pyrenees.
“We’ve got regular dog parks, but we can’t enjoy drinks there,” says Wagner, who raised $2,000 for a golden retriever rescue organization at an event held at the bar. “There is nothing else like The Barrel.”
I had never been to The Barrel, although I’d passed it plenty of times on my way to Bowens Island Restaurant for roasted oysters. Even if I wasn’t allergic to dogs, hanging out with 40 unleashed canines insecure about their dominance doesn’t strike me as relaxing. And I’m not big on beer drinking.
But I didn’t need to know much about The Barrel to immediately grasp what a source was saying when she called to complain about local coverage of an escalating dispute between the bar and the Beefield community.
Almost from the start, Beefield residents were bothered by the habits of The Barrel’s patrons and their pets. The noise from the musical acts was one thing, but the hundreds of people who came to hear them play on weekends unilaterally classified Beefield front lawns as overflow parking.
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As George Richardson later told me, many of the neighborhood’s 27 residents are in their 90s: They have trouble maneuvering their cars around unexpected obstacles. They also worried about the ad hoc parking arrangement impeding ambulances rushing to their homes.
Still, it was hard for them to look past a problem less grim but more immediate: When dogs jumped out of those cars, following road trips from the other end of the county, they were prone to defecate. And their owners often let the waste lie.
Yet none of the Beefield residents or their concerns showed up in television reports or social media threads this summer about The Barrel facing closure for violating city zoning, parking and fire ordinances. Instead, the story was framed as a beleaguered business owner’s fight to sustain a fun-loving, dual-species community in the face of rampant NIMBYism.
On the night after I was briefed on The Barrel, I was seated next to a small group of women at FIG’s bar. “Did you hear about The Barrel?” one asked the rest. “It’s so sad: I don’t know where I’ll take my dog if they close.”
The James Islander who called me doesn’t live in Beefield, but she doesn’t live far from it. So she kept a close eye on the situation, and began to suspect that The Barrel’s fans had no clue who they were unsettling.
That interpretation made sense to me, since it’s astounding how many coastal South Carolina newcomers don’t pause to take stock of where they’re now living. Last week, for example, a reader sent me a seven-paragraph, all-caps e-mail seeking help:
“I and my wife moved to Charleston from New York earlier this year and quickly determined the Holy City’s foodie scene contains some significant gaps,” he wrote. (I’ll spare you the all-caps treatment.) “Case in point: We have yet to find a restaurant that offers tilapia, rockfish or cod, either grilled or blackened, with two veggies for less than $25.”
Honestly, I wouldn’t know where to look in the Lowcountry for cheap imported fish: I suggested he check out Myrtle Beach’s seafood buffets. But I had some idea of how to approach the questions presumably animating the caller’s sympathies.
I got the impression she was wondering about what’s on so many diners’ minds as certain Southern cities get bigger, richer and whiter: How complicit are we in advancing de facto segregation? What is our responsibility to those who came before us? Is it incumbent upon consumers to consider what harm a food business might cause -- or does that burden belong to its owner?
My guess was that Reynolds wouldn’t want to spend much time theorizing about the above, based on the aggravated tone of his Facebook posts over the past several months and George Richardson’s read on his demeanor: “He’s young and cocky,” he warned me. But I was curious about his take on the dynamic, so I called the bar and left a voicemail.
Then I e-mailed him.
Then I sent him a Facebook message.
A few days later, I went out to The Barrel and posted a note on the door of an RV parked in its lot.
“Spin this however you want,” Reynolds texted me that evening. “I legit don’t care anymore.”
George Richardson, by contrast, was happy to meet up. His car was in the shop when I first called him, so he was stuck at home for a few hours.
When Richardson moved back to Beefield, his neighbors were mostly just hoping that The Barrel would shape up. But he had a different strategy in mind: Rather than try to win any concessions from Reynolds, he leaned on the city to clarify and enforce its existing rules.
First, he petitioned the city to put up ‘no parking’ signs. Seventeen signs went up in late 2020.
Second, he started keeping track of how many tickets were issued to cars parked in open defiance of the new signs. On an average night, he says, they numbered between 20 and 30.
“By that time, we had had enough,” Richardson says.
Finally, he instructed his neighbors to call the city with specific requests. Beginning in June of this year, they called constantly, outlining what they wanted:
They wanted police officers to tow cars parked illegally. They wanted the fire marshal to count the crowd at The Barrel, which had an occupancy limit of 49 people. And they wanted something done about the dogs.
Owners in some cases were cleaning up after their dogs, as residents had wished for. But then, Richardson says, “Some of them started putting poop bags in my neighbors’ mailboxes.”
Reynolds responded specifically to that accusation in an aggrieved Facebook post, dismissing its severity: “While that should not make anyone happy, it certainly shouldn’t make them go to great lengths to have a place loved by so many shut down,” he wrote.
In July, city of Charleston officials cited The Barrel for having twice as many people as permitted and not meeting the city’s parking requirements.
In August, a livability court judge ruled that The Barrel had never received permission to serve customers outdoors, prompting Reynolds to temporarily close his business. (Although the court hadn’t overtly barred The Barrel from operating its indoor space with the proper number of parking spots, Reynolds claimed he couldn’t make enough money under those conditions.)
In September, having not yet received any modification plans from Reynolds, the city ruled that the closure was nonvoluntary and permanent.
Charleston’s livability and tourism director is openly exasperated with Reynolds.
“He makes it look like it was the city, but it was him,” the typically even-tempered Dan Riccio says. “Every business is required to comply (with the rules). This was his fault.”
Yet as The Barrel’s many fans rallied around Reynolds, he stopped blaming the city. Instead, he urged his followers to question the motivation of neighbors who showed no concern for “the livability of my bartenders, food trucks (and) musicians.”
“This isn’t the city’s fault,” Reynolds reiterated in an Aug. 9 Facebook post that was liked hundreds of times. “A whistle got blown by a neighborhood full of Karens and, coincidentally, Chads.”
It was an odd characterization of an all-Black neighborhood where Richardson, 63, is considered young. But The Barrel’s supporters, apparently unfamiliar with local history, didn’t challenge it.
Perhaps the only accurate component of Reynolds’ Karens-and-Chads allegation was the allusion to a whistle: Richardson still identifies as a military man who slashes his zeroes; starts the alphabet with Alpha and tells people he’ll see them at 14:35. He attributes Beefield’s latest victory to “structure, discipline and foresight.”
When Richardson’s elders tell him how pleased they are to rock on their porches again, without fear of people stumbling back from a bar with barking dogs, they sometimes say, “George, I pray you’re not going to leave again.”
Richardson has promised he’s not going anywhere until God calls him home.
Reynolds, though, is on his way out.
“Just write that the place is for sale,” Reynolds said when asked for comment on The Barrel’s status. “I’ve decided that I’m leaving this dumpster fire of a town. Moving west to ski legit every day.”