Bar Entrepreneur of the Year: Carina Soto Velasquez

4 Jul. 2019
Paris - New Orleans - Havana: Carina's big year

We’re working in a creative industry and it’s very tempting to believe that the cream always rises to the top: if you’re good and you work hard, you’ll make it. But even creative people need to deal with administrative hassles. Ask Colombian Carina Soto Velasquez and her American partners Adam Tsou and Josh Fontaine: if the latter hadn’t had an Italian passport, the trio would never have been able to open Candelaria. « In France, you can’t get a licence for a bar if you’re not from the European Union », Carina tells us today. « I didn’t have papers at the time, and trying to get a visa to operate a business was a nightmare. » She finally received it in June 2011. Candelaria had opened in March of that year… 

Things are very different today, and not only because Carina’s finally acquired the French nationality (it only took 15 years…). In spite of the initial difficulties, Candelaria was a resounding success. Quixotic Projects, the company she set up with her two partners, went on to open Le Mary Celeste, Glass, Hero and Les Grands Verres, all in Paris (read more about this here). And they’ve now opened their first venture outside of France, Marilou. Located in New Orleans’ Atelier Ace, it’s a consulting job, but not just any consulting job… « We did consulting before but… It always starts well and then… The place decides to lower the quality of the drinks, for example, so you don’t feel any kinship to the project anymore and you leave. For Marilou we were involved with everything. It’s as if it were one of our own bars », Carina says. « I see it more as a collaboration and a know-how exchange with Ace, a brand we like a lot and we know very well. »

Businesses are not only about opening new places. Sometimes, you have to close them. Back in Paris, Carina’s just announced that Glass would be closing after 7 years. It sent shockwaves through the local cocktail scene — Glass was a popular after hours bar — but Carina is convinced it’s the correct decision, and not only because they’re « too old to follow the rhythm » of a party bar. « We were very happy with the brand, but the street has changed — and we were part of the change, initially. There’s a lot of hype now, new places open with big budgets, nice interiors. You see Glass and it looks it’s been there 20 years. It’d need to be refreshed but we don’t want to do a Marais bar in the middle of Pigalle. It doesn’t make sense to us »

On a personal level, the last few months have also been quite hectic. Just this week, Carina was announced among this year’s inductees for the Tales of the Cocktail Dame Hall of Fame, ‘a celebration of women who have made unique and lasting contributions to the global hospitality industry. Established in 2012, it serves to acknowledge female leaders and encourage mentorship throughout the beverage and hospitality industries’. She will join such pioneering ladies as Audrey Saunders, Alba Huerta, Monica Berg or Franky Marshall.

And last month, she became the first Havana Club Bar Entrepreneur of the Year, which comes with a substantial prize Carina has decided to use on marketing, working closely with an agency of her own choosing. It’s quite common in the US and in London, where even bartenders are represented by PR agencies. Not so in France. « Most of our bars are neighbourhood places. Small places can’t afford PR budgets. In Paris, it’s just necessary for bigger openings — it makes a real difference. For the opening of Les Grandes Verres we worked with an agency, but it’s a big budget and we stopped. It’s an important network that the award will help me reactivate », she says.

The Award is not her only venture with Havana Club. Over the last few months, she’s been working hard with Alex Kratena and Maestros del Ron Cubano Salomé Aleman, Asbel Morales and Juan Carlos Gonzalez on Professional Edition C & D, the new, limited-edition rums, inspired by Cuban terroir. They will be unveiled next October at Bar Convent Berlin. « It was very easy to work with Alex Kratena, he’s someone who tells it straight », she explains. « The experience brought me back to my days behind the bar. With all the openings, I had lost this connection and this process helped get some of it back. It’s very interesting »

The experience with Professional Edition obviously opened a new field for Carina. But she’s not about to stop opening bars and restaurant. « I have this idea that I’ve always wanted to do in Paris and it’s slowly taking shape », she tells us somewhat cryptically. « It will have to wait until 2020 », she adds. We get a sense next year’s going to be as busy — and hopefully successful — as this one for Carina.

François Monti