Soby’s @ 20: Carl Sobocinski on the spot that started GVL’s transformation

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Photos by Paul MaHaffey | TOWN

Two decades ago, Carl Sobocinski and David Williams saw something special in the building at 207 S. Main St. in downtown Greenville. Originally constructed in the waning days of the 19th century, the structure had been a cotton exchange, grocery store, bicycle shop, and shoe store.

Sobocinski and Williams decided to completely refurbish the space, and on Nov. 7, 1997, they opened Soby’s New South Cuisine. And in the process, they sparked a culinary revolution in downtown Greenville.

In the years that followed, the South Main eatery spawned the Table 301 restaurant group and a string of downtown offerings, including Soby’s on the Side, The Lazy Goat, Nose Dive Gastropub, Passerelle Bistro, Papi’s Tacos, Southern Pressed Juicery, and Jianna.

Countless cheddar and garlic biscuits later, Sobocinski talks about the chaos of opening night and the success that soon followed.

What was that feeling on opening night?

Opening night was filled with so many emotional highs. We had spent 10 months building the restaurant from demolition to construction to putting the finishing touches on the décor, tableware, server uniforms, etc. that I couldn’t wait another minute to open the doors and see the first guests walk through. Actually, the doors weren’t even hung yet and wouldn’t be hung for three more days, so we had a black curtain over the front doors and security guards hired to protect the restaurant after closing each night.

I remember that this was pre-smartphones, and while I think I had a cellphone, we didn’t text or take photos, so the most amazing and memorable thing about opening night was leaving about 3:30 in the afternoon to go home and shower and [get] dressed for opening night, and everything was down to the wire, and when I left the tables were just being moved onto the barely dried and cured hardwood floors, so I left not seeing the restaurant set up, and by the time I returned, the tables, chairs, and place settings were all perfectly laid out, and I saw the dining room as we had always imagined it all set and ready to receive guests.

Did you think Soby’s was going to make it?

I certainly thought we would make it, but we had planned for a two- to three-year timeframe to see a return on our investment. By Soby’s first anniversary, we had paid back all of our investors. I knew that we had an incredible team of passionate people who loved our community, the art of hospitality, guest service, food, wine, and each other, and so with that I felt success would be achieved and that we would be here for a very long time.

When did you know it would?

We opened on Nov. 7, 1997, and by Thanksgiving, we knew we had something special. We had a 200-seat restaurant with 100 up and 100 down, and at opening we only thought we would need the downstairs and that the upstairs would be for private events on an event-by-event basis. By Thanksgiving, we were installing a server station upstairs, a service bar, tables, and chairs to be able to seat the mezzanine on a nightly basis. We haven’t looked back.

What did you do right?

We have just gone out every night trying to give 100 percent and make people smile. We aren’t saving lives in this industry. We are serving people. People that we have no idea what they have going on in their life, what kind of day they’ve had, what they are battling with, or what successes they are celebrating. We just go out every night and do our best to put a smile on people’s faces and deliver the highest quality product and service.

Where do you see Soby’s changing and remaining the same and relevant in the current local restaurant scene?

Honestly, I think Soby’s will be the mainstay of downtown dining. We will be the place that epitomizes the South, Southern cuisine, enlightened hospitality, and a place that locals will recommend that guests visit at least once during their stay. We are always trying to improve, stay fresh, innovative, and relevant, but we welcome some of the newer chefs and restaurants to take the lead on some of the more modern cooking styles and cuisines. We know our place and are grateful for the support these last 20 years and look forward to sharing the next 20 years with our staff and guests.

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