Married with Restaurant: Chef-Artist duo make recipe for success

Couple's restaurant start-up brings colorful Caribbean food to the Midwest.
April 30, 2010 - PRLog -- Mix the talents of one chef and one artist and what do you get? Caribe Caribbean Bistro is the result of such a recipe and has been packing the tiny space with hungry diners ever since the restaurant opened this spring. Caribe (ca-ree'-bay) is the concept of first-time restaurateur and Puerto Rico native, Tony Panelli and the art creation of his wife, Minnesota-born artist Heidi Panelli.

Demanding attention from blocks away with its bright colored exterior, a sunny orange and yellow building with a bright green door welcomes guests to the cozy dining room, seating only 40. Playful decorative painting, reminiscent of islander-painted souvenirs from that vacation in Aruba, adorn the room from ceiling fan to doorstop. "That's all Heidi's doing," says Tony. "Yea, but people come for the food, and the food is all Tony," says Heidi, who also designed the company's logo and website.

The tables are old, the floor is cracked linoleum tile, the chairs have seen better days, but the food doesn't mind. Somehow in the humble space they rent at 791 Raymond Ave., the couple is making it work, and customers are responding.

"People are really liking the food," says Tony, who these days can be found in the kitchen, deep frying made-from-scratch appetizers, assembling lunch sandwiches such as the Grilled Jerk Chicken, and grilling dinner entrees like the Marlin Steak. When he's not cooking, he's out greeting customers; making sure they're enjoying their meal.

"It's been hard work for both of us, and hard on the family right now," says Heidi, who is also a stay at home mother of their three children (ages 4, 2, and 8 months) while helping manage parts of the business from home. Once the restaurant is more established, Tony will allow himself some days off. But for this start-up period now, "It's so crazy," says Tony, "but I wouldn't trade it for anything."

So What makes Caribe different from any other ethnic restaurant? What's their secret to early success? After nearly 10 years cooking in Twin Cities restaurants, including [former] A'Rebours, [former] Bellanotte, and the Cheesecake Factory, Tony knows what people like here in Minnesota. Combine that with his desire to share Caribbean food with Minnesotans and a wife who couldn't wait to get her paint brushes on the walls and you've got something people want to experience. A mini get-away in St. Paul.

The menu is creative and authentic, focusing on the entire Caribbean region, not just one country. Heidi adds, "We wanted our restaurant to be as inviting to Minnesotans as it is familiar to people from the Caribbean."

Will Caribe remain a success? Time will tell. As Heidi continues to paint the 20 foot mural in the dining room, Tony is still tweaking the menu. The place is still a work in progress by this Chef-Artist team.

No matter how small their space is, however, "There's always room to make things better," says Tony.

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Caribe (ca-REE-bay) Caribbean Bistro is located in St. Paul, Minnesota. Chef owned & operated, Caribe is the creation of Puerto Rico native & Minnesota resident, chef Tony Panelli. Together with his wife Heidi, they opened the restaurant in April of 2010.
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Tags:Start-up, Entrepreneur, Small Business, Restaurant, Caribbean Food, Married, Mom, Chef
Location:St. Paul - Minnesota - United States
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