Early morning is the perfect time to walk Main Street. Temperatures are low and the pace a bit slower. About 7:30 a.m., Carl Sobocinski strolls from Starbucks to Soby’s on the Side or Southern Pressed Juicery, and eventually to Table 301, his downtown restaurant group that sits atop Soby’s restaurant—a Main Street draw for nearly two decades. “I’ve sort of had that routine the last couple of years,” shares the friendly restaurateur. “Most of it is for personal health, just starting the day in a calm manner, enjoying the walk downtown. I always run into somebody, and can strike up a conversation about something going on in Greenville.”
And there’s a lot to talk about. Options are limitless these days, thanks in part to Carl’s professional and philanthropic efforts. Yet as he faces the half-century mark this December, his priorities are shifting. The bold 25-year-old who fronted Funky Fridays above his first restaurant 858 has grown into a reflective, forward-thinking ambassador of Greenville. Like the menu to a Michelin 3-star restaurant, Carl is continually injecting new additions, and is poised to serve his most succulent offerings yet.
If it’s hot in the kitchen, the Table 301 offices are even hotter. Running eight restaurants with more than 500 employees, a food truck, and a catering business is trickier than mastering a classic boeuf bourguignon. Yet Carl is cool and calm. “It’s big. It’s a lot,” he reveals. “As I hit 50, I’m reevaluating how much longer I can do this and do I want to? I don’t think it’s a mid-life crisis, it’s just a time to reevaluate.”
Table Manners // Carl has a knack for pairing excellent cuisine with the perfect setting, like at Jianna in downtown Greenville across from Falls Park, his latest venture with famed chef Michael Kramer at the helm.
The intuitive mathematician is calculating the pull of his restaurants against that of his two daughters. “Time is precious and family is important. These girls are at impressionable ages, and the years are going by too fast,” explains the single father of Bella (12) and Lexie (9). “There’s nothing better than being a dad. Bella’s got six more years of school before college and I want to be able to spend as much time with her and Lexie as I can. That’s where that thought process comes from.”
So what will the king of cuisine do with his first babies . . . his restaurants? The word legacy flows from Carl’s mouth totally unprompted . . . reinforcing the observation that he’s not rushing into this new stage of life without contemplation. “I think one of the greatest legacies for me would be to have started something, and help five, six, seven young entrepreneurs get started, and turn some of these restaurants over to them. I want to see them take over and keep doing good things in the community. That’s sort of where I’m looking at the legacy being.” That direction would bring his operation full-circle, back to when a New England teen decided to tackle the South.
An hour north of Boston, just over the state line, sits Durham, New Hampshire. It’s where Carl grew up between two dairy farms. “I started working on a dairy farm at age 12,” he recalls. “We had a decent-size garden and grew our own tomatoes, peppers, squash, and corn. You name it, we had it in the garden. We probably ate at home five to six nights a week.” Mom was a teacher, dad was in sales, Carl an only child.
Head of the Table // Carl Sobocinski is the creator of Main Street staple Soby’s, the flagship of his restaurant group Table 301. The restaurant has served more than 2.5 million guests since opening 20 years ago, and has sold nearly 420,000 crab cakes..
On Saturdays, he’d visit his grandfather’s Polish market and butcher shop in Salem. “I’d stand behind the counter and watch them work and see how they talked to people and how everybody knew my grandfather.” Carl and his mom shared the same spring breaks, and would head to the beach. Wrightsville. Myrtle Beach. Hilton Head. Amelia Island. “I sorta loved the Southeast,” he says smiling. When looking at colleges in the mid-80s, three things dominated his thoughts: studying architecture, playing baseball, and Clemson University’s football team winning the National Championship. “When we drove onto Clemson’s campus, it reminded me of the town where I grew up. I knew that’s where I needed to be.”
Four and a half years later, he left Clemson with a design degree and a passion for the food service industry, after starting work at Keowee Key Country Club his junior year. “I really loved being around people, and there’s always a curve ball. I love that aspect of the business, that no two days are alike.” Working at a drafting desk? Or making friends over food? The graduate chose the latter.
With more than 120-plus restaurants in downtown Greenville, it’s hard to recall the slim pickings of past times. In 1993, Carl and a few friends saw an opening, borrowed money, and opened 858. “I was fired up to do it,” he says. “I put in ridiculous hours. I would be there from nine in the morning until midnight, six days a
week, sometimes seven.” Today, he laughs at the gumption of his younger self. “I wasn’t scared. Literally, I remember telling friends, if it doesn’t work out, I’m 25 years old. I’ll go get a couple of jobs and pay it back. I’m more scared today, more nervous, about all of the financial burdens, and labor. All the people we’re responsible for. Back then, I was young, dumb, and naïve.”
He was smart enough to know when to leave 858. “There were three of us, and we were on three different pages. I thought it best for me to go search for something else.” That something else was bold and birthed his true, entrepreneurial spirit. In November of ’97, he turned an empty shoe store on Main Street into Soby’s, introducing “New South Cuisine” to a meat-and-three town. This fall, Soby’s will celebrate 20 years. In an industry where roughly half of restaurants fail the first year, and only 10 percent make it past five, surviving and thriving double decades is huge.
Carl admits a special fondness for his namesake establishment, as it formed the foundation for all others: Soby’s on the Side, The Lazy Goat, Nose Dive, Passerelle Bistro, Papi’s Tacos, Southern Pressed Juicery, and Jianna. Restaurant O and Devereaux’s experienced solid runs, but closed with lessons learned. Number 1: don’t spend beyond industry ratios on aesthetics. Number 2: recessions hurt. Number 3: leasing rates can increase monumentally with a town’s growth. “I definitely have that sense of failure, that sadness that it didn’t work,” he says reflectively. “You’re like, we went after this thing. We ran it very well for however many years, but at the end of the day, it wasn’t good enough, or we weren’t good enough.”
He doesn’t want to feel that failure again. Carl’s teamed together with other restaurateurs to support each other and Greenville. “I know from other cities there’s a lot of dog-eat-dog out there. But we have a great restaurant community. We work together. Most of us feel like all boats rise with the rising tide.” One such initiative to buoy downtown is making national headlines, enriching the county’s entire landscape.
Not having studied business, Carl has joined as many groups as possible to learn the ins and outs of running one. While on the board of the Convention and Visitor’s Bureau, he and his colleagues petitioned City Council for $300,000 in hospitality tax money to explore marketing the city. He’ll never forget hearing “Yeah THAT Greenville” for the first time at Brains on Fire. “I had a big smile on my face! I think everybody’s face in the room just lit up, and we were like, this is the ticket. This is gonna work!”
Tourism numbers and dining dollars show the slogan’s certainly worked. “Our city is a brand. It’s like a business and we need to treat it that way. So, I think we did a good job on selling them [City Council] on that.” He’s devoted significant time to selling other ideas as well, lobbying lawmakers to allow Sunday alcohol sales and implementing a no-smoking ban before any others. In a nod to the homegrown food of his childhood, he facilitated a rebirth of the downtown farmer’s market. “Susan Reynolds and I literally drove around. We went out to Travelers Rest, and up and down 25, and met with a bunch of different farmers. Some looked at us sideways, others said they’d do it.” This coming weekend, as many as 100 tents will arise to sell produce on Main Street at the TD Saturday Market.
But Carl’s most entertaining concept was born out of necessity with good friend Edwin McCain.
Back in the mid-2000s, both Carl and platinum-selling artist Edwin McCain were hitting their stride. With success came requests, and friends were making a lot of them. The two buddies hit upon an idea. They could better help the community with one big event, rather than dozens of individual donations. That conversation led to one of the most innovative festivals in America: Euphoria. “His vision was a lot better than mine,” McCain says with a big laugh. “If it had been up to me, we’d have met for hot dogs and boiled peanuts, and used a tractor-trailer for a stage. All the credit goes to him.”
leven years later, the four-day event the two founded combines the nation’s top chefs and master sommeliers with award-winning singers and songwriters. Charities like LiveWell Greenville, A Child’s Haven, and the South Carolina Children’s Theatre have benefited from more than $250,000 in grants since 2006. “If I could say anything notable, it would be just how solid Carl is,” confesses Edwin. “He’s a foxhole friend, and there are very few of those. I can count on him to be the same person he’s always been. He’s always set the level, and that’s why so many people are in his corner and support him unconditionally.”
The man who so eloquently promotes Greenville starts to stutter when credited with molding Main Street in so many different ways. “It’s very flattering, but, but, but . . . I don’t know. I’m just one guy. It took a whole lot of people around me, supporting me.” He’s now focused on helping others as he steps back from day-to-day operations at Table 301. “I’m able to look at the 10-thousand-foot view, but it’s not giving me a lot of time to do the things I want to do,” he spills in a rush. He’s working with a child through Mentor Greenville, giving back to the Liberty Fellowship (one of the “best experiences” of his life), and teaching folks to eat healthier through a hands-on cooking program at Mill Village Farms.
“I believe we’re all led to give back. It feels great to know things we’ve done have made a difference, but it also doesn’t feel like it’s enough,” he ponders. “I’ve been very blessed and very fortunate. Since so many people helped me, I want to be sure to return that favor and help others reach their goals.”
Jorge “Papi” Baralles, Sr., is living proof Carl is doing just that. Papi is originally from Mexico, and joined Table 301 as a dishwasher at Soby’s when it opened 20 years ago. In the days to come, Carl will be handing his long-time employee ownership of Papi’s Tacos, which they founded together.
“The importance of relationships, the importance of giving back, those things will hold true for generations. All I’ve ever wanted to do is make a difference and be impactful.”
A dish that will sustain him deep into this next stage in life.