At a very young age, Table 301 President Carl Sobocinski knew he’d be going into business for himself, and with more than 20 years of service in downtown Greenville, he has seen that business mirror the city’s growth around him.
Born in the northeastern United States, Sobocinski began molding his work ethic and entrepreneurial spirit in the rural confines of Durham, N.H.
“I worked on a dairy farm from the fifth grade until my final two years in high school when I started my own lawn care business,” he says.
Following high school, Sobocinski headed south in hopes of playing baseball in the Atlantic Coast Conference. After visiting several colleges throughout the region, he found his home for the next four years at Clemson University.
“Once I drove onto the campus, I fell in love immediately,” he says.
After playing just two seasons for the Tigers, Sobocinski says it became clear that a life in baseball was not going to pan out. He began to focus on his studies.
“While finishing up my time at Clemson, I found my first restaurant job at Keowee Key Country Club and began bartending and waiting tables while working my way up the ranks,” he says. “I learned all of the different positions until managing for about a year and a half.”
Following college in 1993, Sobocinski moved to Greenville and, along with two partners, opened a downtown restaurant, The 858.
Sobocinski says the idea for the business came after a friend purchased a four-story building with a cafeteria, dining room and kitchen on one of the floors.
“The partnership continued for several years, but we all began to venture in our own directions,” he says.
By November 1997, the former farmhand was moving south along Main Street as the tip of the spear in Greenville’s downtown revitalization efforts.
The restaurateur says he opened Soby’s at a time when the city’s center would not be recognizable as what it is today.
“We were down here by ourselves when we first got started,” he says. “Back then, the Poinsett Hotel was boarded, shuttered and run-down.”
Over the last 16 years in downtown, Greenville has grown up around the restaurant, Sobocinski says.
“We have seen this city fill in the gaps and go well south of us,” he says.
After Soby’s began to expand in 2001 with the Loft at Soby’s and Soby’s on the Side, the native of New Hampshire formed a restaurant group and branded it Table 301.
The restaurant group now includes such Greenville fixtures as The Lazy Goat, Nose Dive, Papi’s Tacos and Passerelle Bistro.
With Table 301’s expansion, Sobocinski has taken on a leadership role as president and enjoys mentoring some of the company’s chefs and managers.
“I’m not running any of the day-to-day operations of the restaurants,” he says. “But I still love being in there, and Soby’s is the place where I am most comfortable and where you could find me several nights each week.”
The hospitality business has evolved over the years with technology, marketing, and social media, and Table 301 has continued to grow with it. In the wake of nearly two decades of growth, there are no immediate plans for expansion, but the company remains open to the possibility, Sobocinski says.
“Many have recommended franchising Soby’s throughout the South, or putting a Papi’s Tacos or a Soby’s on the Side in airports, malls and food courts,” he says. “Right now, we are focused on what we are doing here, but as Greenville develops and spots open up in the market, we will look into those opportunities.”
While he has enjoyed more than two decades in the restaurant business, the New Englander has also spent time exploring other possibilities, including a two-week seminar in South Africa last year as part of the Liberty Fellowship program.
Sobocinski says the seminar included people from all over the globe and featured intense discussion and lectures on globalization.
“The seminar prompted me to question the future,” he says. “After working in the restaurant business for 20 years experiencing a lot of success and employing a lot of people, do I want to be here for the next 20 years?”
Although he didn’t have the answer today, Sobocinski says he was sure he would wake up every morning with it on his mind.
View more from Carl Sobocinski's personal photo album.
Why do you want to work for yourself?
After starting my lawn care business in high school and working just two 12-hour days a week, I knew that was the way to do it.
What inspired you to start this company, take the position, or enter this field?
My first job out on Lake Keowee at the country club inspired me. It was owned by the developer at the time, and while I went there thinking I was going to get a mere restaurant job and serve food and drinks, the developer was all about selling real estate. The country club included intense training programs that taught us how to take care of our guests. When a person walked in, it was more than what they want. We had to know everything about the area, the lake and the property, and I fell in love with meeting people and the entire art of hospitality.
What excites you about Greenville?
The continued opportunity in this city excites me because we have seen so much happen in the last 15 years. There is continued construction and development in the works as we speak and there are a ton of opportunities here.
Describe the energy of working in downtown Greenville.
The energy outside of downtown is only on the weekends. Monday through Sunday in downtown is packed and there are people walking up and down Main Street. There are businesspeople working in the buildings, and there are tourists staying in the hotels. There is always energy and traffic downtown.
What are the benefits of working downtown?
You don’t have to drive down Woodruff Road. You can also take a nice walk when you need to get out of the office. You can walk to a variety of restaurants or into Falls Park along the Reedy River. It is a real respite for the soul to get out of the office and take a walk downtown.
What makes you excited about coming to work in the morning?
The people I work with excite me, along with the guests I know will be coming into the restaurant that night.
What about your work keeps you up at night?
It depends on what night it is. Sometimes it’s the guest satisfaction, and sometimes it is staffing or government regulations.
What is the worst piece of business advice you have ever been given?
The 858 was in a dilapidated downtown, a half block off of Main Street, and on the second floor of a building with no parking. A chef and a reputable restaurateur told me I was crazy to open that restaurant. I did not heed their advice, and we opened and hit a home run.
What would a coworker say it’s like to work with you?
I would hope they would say I care about the staff and I am compassionate. They might say I wear my emotions on my sleeve and I can be hard to be around during that time.
What is your biggest strength? Weakness?
My biggest strength is determination, and my biggest weakness is that I can be emotional.
What is your best character trait?
My best character trait is I am compassionate.
What is your best business decision?
The Loft at Soby’s, because it serves as America’s smallest luxury hotel. We have had dignitaries up there, private dinners, and some of Greenville’s biggest deals closed at the Loft’s dining room table.
How do you motivate?
Through communication and by conveying my passion for hospitality to the team.
What advice would you give a new boss?
Don’t be afraid to change, because change is good.
The city doesn’t spend enough money to promote itself, because we have a fabulous product here in Greenville.
What is your favorite app on your phone or tablet?
What is your worst habit?
Looking at my phone in the car.
What are you a snob about?
I am a snob about wine.
I saw myself years ago without children, but I see a life now with children, and that comes with a whole different perspective.
If you could change places with somebody, who would it be and why?
Growing up it would have been Jim Rice, but since he is retired, it would be the general manager of the Boston Red Sox.