The whole idea behind Carpe Vinum 121 germinated in Paul Bardinas’s imagination as a young man traveling with family in France and Italy.
The look and flavor of beef tartare and escargot. The warm glow of beautiful light on marble and brass. And the uniformed servers with their easygoing professionalism— it all together provided an intimate, unhurried experience he loved.
And so, years after graduating with a computer science degree at Columbia University in New York, and moving to Salisbury, N.C. to run a meat business in the supply side of hospitality, he and his wife Carrie decided to make the dream of a European bistro come true in a spot where meat & potatoes restaurants dominated the scene.
“Before we opened Carpe Vinum we’d tell people our plan to open a bistro in Salisbury in a meat-and-potatoes community of chain and fast-food restaurants, and people would say, ‘Oh, that’ll never work.’ But we realized there was an untapped market here and we’ve wound up being so well received that we get constant thank-you’s for bringing something in that feels like the restaurants of Charleston and Charlotte.”
Paul Bardinass describes the up and down of the culinary journey that he and his wife made in order to realize their hospitality dream in this week’s Q&A with Boxerbrand blog Recipe for Success.
Boxerbrand: You describe the restaurant industry as a “beast.” What do you mean?
Paul Bardinas: The restaurant industry has lots of turnover and obviously Covid 19 didn’t help. Our planned opening was March of 2020, which was exactly the point the service industry fell apart. This was a challenge because we had invested so much capital into our concept and like most restaurants were under water at the time of our planned grand opening. So not only did we have to deal with the high failure rate of restaurants in general, we had further complications of restrictions on indoor dining, the masks, and all the rest. We also had to pay more money in wages to retain people, and instead of $9 an hour we paid $14 an hour. There was no secret sauce to our survival, but the fact that I have a full-time job, which brought in revenue, and my wife’s and my commitment and labor that we made it through. So for a long time I came home from work and bartended at night, and my wife, who is a full-time mother and passionate cook, baked all our desserts, and we both did our time in the dishwashing pit.
Boxerbrand: How does managing a meat processing company elevate the dining experience at Carpe Vinum 121?
Paul Bardinas: As the president and CEO of Freirich Foods, I’ve been involved with procuring and processing beef for this company for 25 years, and I’ve learned the trade secrets of procuring the very best beef and pork. Being in the supply side of the food used in the restaurant industry, I understand how the food is prepared and handled before reaching restaurants, and this has led me to understand and put a premium on the individualistic preparation of our food by our executive chef Lindsay Coarsey. We describe on our website that Chef Lindsay Coarsey has certainly earned his cooking chops. He’s a long-time Salisbury resident who honed his culinary skills working for over 20 years in some of the East Coast’s finest kitchens. He developed a passion for making classic recipes with a modern, contemporary twist.
Boxerbrand: What is your and your wife Carrie’s background in hospitality?
Paul Bardinas: I came to Salisbury to my stepfather’s meat business. And this is where I met my wife Carrie. She worked while she was in college at a local country club, and after we were married and had our first child, she became a passionate cook, hobby farmer and organic gardener. I also developed my passion for fine food and wine while working in New York City restaurants as a server and bartender while I was at Columbia University. But we discovered our real passion for the concept of a European bistro while traveling in Europe and enjoying the ambience, flavors and experience of dining in Paris and Italy.
Boxerbrand: How is Carpe Vinum 121 infused with the best of classic European dining?
Paul Bardinas: We spent thousands of hours creating the look and atmosphere of our restaurant. The first thing we did was bring in our artwork of old French wine and liquor advertisements. We spent a good amount of money on art because we wanted it to be authentic and unique. Another major detail is our bar, which is built around 20 feet of real Carrara marble. We also spent a lot of time researching the perfect height of the bar-top and tabletops to the seat height, and then invested in upholstered leather chairs to evoke comfort and encourage our guests to linger. A lot of restaurants are designed with uncomfortable seating, which is a design to get a guest in and out more quickly in order to turn the table over. We did the opposite. We want our guests to come in and relax over a cocktail, the wine list, or the menu. And we make sure our prices can sustain this model, and we don’t apologize for them. Our bistro is designed to bring the finest experience to our guests.
Boxerbrand: And you mentioned the Boxerbrand menu covers were also carefully sourced for your concept.
Paul Bardinas: My wife and I looked at every menu cover company there was, and we chose Boxerbrand because it was clearly the best. You did a beautiful job. We’ve had them for two years and we’ve never had to throw one away. The craftsmanship is great, and, as with our other decisions, our focus was to provide the best experience, even down to the tactile feel of the menu cover. There’s nothing worse than sitting down at a nice restaurant and having the server hand you a crappy menu cover. Our covers match the color of our leather bar chairs and add to the overall feel.
Boxerbrand: And how do you source your food?
Paul Bardinas: We’re in a food dessert in terms of dining. So we brought in steak tartare and fresh oysters, and offer a whole Mediterranean diet. Being in the meat industry, all of the meats, from the prosciutto on our caprese salad to our beef and pork and lamb is very carefully sourced by myself and our chef. We bring in fresh fish from Seattle and oysters from Maine and Massachusetts.
Boxerbrand: What makes you optimistic about the future of hospitality?
Paul Bardinas: The fact that I could get through Covid makes me optimistic that I can get through anything. I think the early calls of the food industry’s early demise are greatly exaggerated and that the future is bright. I think that people love getting out of the house and enjoying a meal out, enough to pay for the experience, and enough to carry higher wages for food-service employees. Food service and fine dining isn’t going anywhere! — Carpe Vinum 121 uses Boxerbrand’s Classic Leather menu cover line in its Red Boot color-way for its table presentation. Thank you!