The woman’s face is beaming, despite remaining damp from the trickles of water falling from her rain-soaked hair. She holds a steaming to-go cup of coffee and approaches the table talking: “You’re the owner? I just want to tell you how much my husband and I have enjoyed your restaurants. We ate at Soby’s last night and the hotel recommended we come here (Soby’s on the Side) for breakfast,” she tells Carl Sobocinski, indeed the owner and founder of Table 301 Restaurant Group in Greenville, South Carolina.
Sobocinski is sitting at a table near the door, observing the gusting wind, swirling leaves, and torrential downpour through the floor-to-ceiling window that fronts the restaurant. Before the interview started, he was busing tables and perusing the kitchen, despite being fashionably attired in a sports coat and jeans. An earlier tornado warning has been reduced to a tornado watch, so sitting by the glass expanse seems safe, but as he tells the woman, “This is hardly the kind of day you want to be walking around our city.”
Given that FSR is on hand to check out reports Sobocinski and his restaurant group are largely responsible for helping elevate Greenville to one of the South’s premier culinary destinations, the encounter might seem contrived—if it weren’t for the pacing husband at the door and the woman’s lovely New England accent.
Turns out, the couple has traveled from their Vermont home to preview retirement options along the South Carolina coast and in Asheville, North Carolina, stopping off for a night in Greenville.
Sobocinski focuses on the couple’s objectives, describing the area, answering questions, and bonding over their common New England heritage; he grew up in Durham, New Hampshire. This unofficial ambassador of the Upstate has been perfecting his Southern charm ever since he came to Clemson University, located 40 minutes from Greenville, more than 20 years ago to study architecture. Sobocinski was attracted to the restaurant industry because of the opportunity to use his degree to renovate historic buildings and develop key locations within a market.
In the mid-’90s, Greenville was a market begging for reinvention, and Sobocinski seized the moment. In addition to operating and opening numerous restaurant concepts over the last 17 years, Sobocinski has led initiatives to redefine the city and position the area for prime economic development. Practices that are taken for granted now had to be introduced and sold to the community: He went door to door lobbying for signatures to allow alcohol sales in restaurants on Sunday. He visited local farms and convinced eight to start a Saturday morning farmers’ market, which now hosts more than 60 vendors. Before a legal ban existed, he was the first to implement a no-smoking policy to enhance the dining experience. Working with the City Council, he secured a $300,000 budget and led an executive committee to create a brand identity for Greenville.
The results have earned the city accolades: In recent years, Greenville has frequently been ranked among the top metro areas in the U.S. and as one of the best places to live. In 2012, Oprah’s magazine named Greenville its “Favorite Unexpected Vacation Destination,” and the next year, Greenville was named the “Next Big Food City of the South” by Esquire. Also in 2013, the downtown area was included on Forbes’ list of “Top 10 Transformed Neighborhoods.”
Along the way, as Sobocinski was helping to build the community, he was also building the Table 301 group, which includes Soby’s, Soby’s on the Side, The Lazy Goat, NOSE DIVE Gastropub, Passerelle Bistro, and Papi’s Tacos.
At each restaurant, he’s teaching employees the value of being ambassadors for the city and genuine givers of hospitality. “We’re here to build lasting relationships,” Sobocinski says. “One of the best practices I learned from Danny Meyer (Union Square Hospitality Group) is to hold monthly orientation meetings for employees. We teach staff about the menu and restaurant, but also about the city so they can tell families about the children’s museum or talk about the theater or baseball team. If guests include their mailing address on the comment card, then our staff sends a handwritten note thanking them for spending their time with us. That leaves a lasting impression.”
Table 301’s corporate chef, Rodney Freidank, who’s been with the company since 1997, personifies the commitment to long-standing relationships and the culture of hospitality. “We always want to show hospitality and do everything we can to make our guests happy,” Chef Freidank says. “If people come after we close, we’ll try to find a way to feed them. And if they come before we open, maybe we’ll serve them a drink and a bite of something at the bar. We want to exceed expectations; we realize guests are spending their hard-earned money, and we want them to receive value.”
Going the extra mile for a guest may literally mean taking a hike down the street.
If a guest at NOSE DIVE really craves Soby’s Banana Cream Pie, Chef Freidank says, “we’ll go get them a piece of Soby’s pie. If the guest’s son or daughter wants to be a chef, we’ll take them back to the kitchen. If a couple is celebrating an anniversary, maybe we’ll put the label from their wine bottle on a card and everyone will write a note of congratulations so they can take it with them.”
The Table 301 brand is all about living that culture of hospitality, and from table service to community service, it’s a message that each employee is encouraged to embrace. Sobocinski asks his employees to volunteer at least twice a year, for minimum four-hour shifts, at any of the charitable organizations or community events in the area. “We can’t force employees to do this, but we believe strongly in giving back to the community. If all 325 employees give at least eight hours a year, that’s 2,600 volunteer hours. We do it because it’s the right thing to do. And we feel the same way about supporting arts and people in the community. We’ll buy tickets for performances at the arts center and pair the tickets with a dinner promotion. And when the Charlotte Hornets were in town for an exhibition NBA game, we bought 100 tickets and gave them to children in the community.”
Table 301 also gives generously from its earnings, to the tune of $75,000 a year in charitable donations. Gina Boulware, director of public relations and marketing for the company, tells FSR, “For 2015, we’re trying to finalize our thoughts and plans around what the downtown area needs and what the restaurant group needs. Downtown Greenville has changed dramatically since 1997 when Soby’s opened; it is a vibrant, growing culinary destination with numerous chef-driven restaurants—mostly independent operators, and very few chains.”
Boulware joined the group in 2003, just before the company opened Restaurant O, an upscale steakhouse that closed in January 2010. Ask Sobocinski if there were mistakes along the way, and he tells the story of Restaurant O—a beautifully executed steakhouse with décor between art deco and contemporary, gleaming with glass and steel, and designed to appeal to women. Those decisions were spot on; where the plan went afoul, Sobocinski says, was in what seemed at the time to be a well-thought-out dress code: no shorts, no printed T-shirts, no flip flops.
“We wanted Restaurant O to be a polished, refined experience and we didn’t want it to seem casual, which might compete with Soby’s,” he explains. “People would come dressed in nice linen shorts and be shocked at our policy. It only took about six months, until the end of our first summer, to realize the dress code was a mistake, but people only give you one shot.”
The recession did a number on fine dining as well, and Table 301 had expanded considerably in 2007. “That was a banner year for us,” Boulware says. “We opened Lazy Goat in Greenville’s downtown riverfront development; we bought Devereaux’s, a high-end, fine-dining restaurant a block from Restaurant O; we branded Table 301 as a hospitality company; and we self-published a cookbook, The Soby’s New South Cookbook, commemorating Soby’s 10th anniversary.”
Although Greenville fared better than most areas, 2008 and 2009 were challenging years, and Boulware notes the company had to make smart decisions. “Some staff worked part-time, and although we closed Restaurant O we kept the space, knowing we’d put another concept there.”
In February 2011, NOSE DIVE Gastropub opened in that location. “Carl is a serial entrepreneur; he will never rest on his last project,” Boulware says, adding that Passerelle Bistro opened in June 2013, followed by Papi’s Tacos in August of that year in the space under The Lazy Goat.
“Carl is not a micromanager; he rarely says no and there’s a lot of opportunity to try things,” she says. “My biggest roadblocks are never ideas or the freedom to pursue them, it’s the time to execute. As an industry leader, we like to be the people who do things first—like the Culinary Artisan series.”
Led by Table 301’s executive chef of culinary operations, Michael Kramer, the Culinary Artisan series brings chefs from around the country to Greenville. “We started the Culinary Artisan series about a year ago, and we typically host one chef from another city for a special dinner,” Chef Kramer explains. “The guest chef and I pick a theme and share the dinner preparation. I have relationships with chefs around the country, and it’s a great opportunity for my Table 301 team to see different ideas.”
The artisan dinners may serve 30 to 100 people, although the number is most often around 50. “We hold them early in the week so the guest chef can get back to his own kitchen for the weekend,” Chef Kramer continues. “The price point comes into play with the dinners; we want to fill the seats and get the exposure” so the restaurant makes it affordable.
As for the direction menus are taking in the Table 301 portfolio, Chef Kramer says, “Simplicity is winning the war. Each concept in our group is an individual brand, but once in a while we swap ideas between the restaurants although we’ll craft the dish in different ways. A burger at Passerelle Bistro is totally different than the burgers at NOSE DIVE.”
Table 301 Catering is another strategic platform in the company. Chef Freidank says, “There’s unlimited growth potential with catering. During the economic downturn it was a bit challenging because there was less demand and it seemed everyone decided to become a caterer as an alternate source of income. But those folks came and went, so now we are putting more love into our catering business and there are no limits to the distance we’ll travel.”
In fact, Table 301 has secured the coveted catering responsibility for a group of hospitality homes during the esteemed Masters Golf Tournament in Augusta, Georgia. The upcoming Masters in April will be the seventh year that the restaurant group, which is working at the behest of ESPN and the PGA of America, prepares dinners for the houseguests across seven consecutive nights.
Chef Freidank personally attends to the dinners and says, “It is one of my favorite weeks and I work every night. The menu is different each night; some dishes are from Table 301 restaurants and others are created just for the event. With 24 to 40 people at each dinner it has to be a set menu.”
Looking to the future, Boulware says Table 301 is “trying to determine how to brand our nonprofit activities, which are so important to Carl and the company. Our director of sales is also the director of community outreach, and in addition to the charitable donations and volunteering, he’s working to make this a healthier place for all of us to live and work. For instance, around 45 of our employees are running in a race together, and we’ve been testing a project with the local after-school program to help educate children about nutrition.”
What motivates Sobocinski may be building his community and his passion for hospitality, but he’s also committed to tackling issues of importance to the industry. He holds leadership roles in the National Restaurant Association and the South Carolina Restaurant and Lodging Association, and is openly engaged in public debate about immigration reform and the looming expense associated with the Affordable Care Act. “We’ve always offered health care to our employees,” he says. “We’re not in favor of the government imposing laws on what we offer. The biggest challenges we face are government regulations and staffing.”
Challenges aside, Sobocinski clearly has a talent for discerning silver-lining opportunities, whether it’s bringing timely culinary concepts to a historic downtown, nurturing long-lasting relationships, or simply sharing warmth and hospitality with a rain-soaked guest.
NOSE DIVE is the answer to consumers' quest for quality, edgy food in a relaxed environment that's never stuffy or stilted. It's a warm, neighborhood hangout that invites frequent visits.
The successful 1,000-square-foot restaurant begs the contemplation: Can it evolve into a national fast-casual franchise? Carl Sobocinski is pondering that now, with an eye on airports, mall food courts, and college campuses.