When Michael Minelli first visited Greenville back in 2016, he didn’t know it was the place where his dreams would soon come true.
He didn’t know, for example, that it was the place where he would meet his future wife.
Or where he would welcome his firstborn child.
Or where he would finally achieve his lifelong goal of running his own family restaurant — and all within just a few short years, at that.
“If you would’ve told me all that back then, I would have said you’re crazy,” Minelli said. “It still seems absolutely nuts.”
Minelli has now taken over as the new owner of Passerelle Bistro, the cozy French restaurant at 601 S. Main St., overlooking Falls Park and the Liberty Bridge. It’s the latest in a pattern of former Table 301 concepts being bought out by longtime employees, following Papi’s Tacos and Jianna.
With Minelli’s wife, Jen Rogers Minelli, serving as executive chef in the kitchen, and their two-year-old son, also named Michael, forming some of his earliest memories inside the restaurant, Paserelle Bistro has truly become the kind of old-school family eatery that Minelli always hoped his first restaurant would be.
“Carl really made it happen,” Minelli said, referring to Table 301 founder Carl Sobocinski, who worked with Minelli on the buyout. “I don’t know what I did right in my life to get here, but his help has really been a godsend. He’s changed my life, my son’s life, my family’s life, so I’m just eternally grateful.”
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Minelli only visited Greenville back in 2016 for a short stay to attend his sister’s wedding. As it happened, the first restaurant he ate at was Soby’s downtown.
About a year later, after he decided to move to Greenville from New Jersey, he found himself in Soby’s once again, this time as a general manager.
“I was managing at Soby’s, and Carl said he had a girl coming from Nashville who they were going to bring into the restaurant,” Minelli said. “As soon as I saw her, she was it. The missing piece in my life.”
It didn’t take long for Minelli and that chef who’d moved from Nashville, Jen Rogers, to become a couple, and just as quickly, they were married with a young son.
“Life really kicked into high gear for us,” he said.
She was later promoted from sous chef at Soby’s to executive chef at Passerelle Bistro, around the same time Minelli came on as the restaurant’s general manager.
The family dynamic has allowed them to steer the concept toward greater success — in its food and its finances, according to Sobocinski.
“Before they came on, it was just paying the bills, but not really paying down the debt like we wanted it to,” Sobocinski said. “That really changed because of [Minelli’s] great management and his wife’s great food, plus just a ton of great execution across the board.”
The plan for Minelli to take over the restaurant came in phases, from an initial 10% ownership stake for Minelli, to 49%, and then to 100% as of the start of 2021.
It’s a model Sobocinski now said is possible to replicate again and again, with Table 301 serving as a kind of restaurant incubator, wherein new concepts can be created before ownership is passed on to the employees who made them a success.
“That term, ‘restaurant incubator’ — someone just used the other day,” Sobocinski said. “On one hand, this all just started as an exit strategy for me. Now that it has become this kind of incubator strategy, it’s freed up some resources for us to continue to pursue other opportunities.”
It’s also given Sobocinski a chance to double down, at least emotionally speaking, on his investments.
“When you open up a restaurant, it’s an incredible feeling,” he said. “Getting to pass these restaurants along to others is just the same feeling, almost like seeing your children take it over.”
To say that any restaurant business is a “family” is cliche, Sobocinski admits, but when the team taking over happens to be a real family that met and came together in his own restaurant group, it does lessen the cliche factor just a bit.
“You like to say that you work together and become a family in the process,” Sobocsinki said. “In this case, that truly is what happened.”
As for Minelli and his family, they have already been helming the ship at Passerelle Bistro for some time, and their plan is to continue steering it toward whatever the future holds.
“Meanwhile, my son is growing so much — I mean the little guy is really stretching out,” Minelli said. “Having him here is great because he’s super social. The staff watches him like a hawk. For now, he’s a little happy ball of energy, my wife is incredible, we have a nice home, a family restaurant. All the ducks are in a row.”
He added, “A part of me still doesn’t believe it.”