August 7, 2011

STRANGER: Caroline Nuttall
LOCATION: Caviar & Bananas, 51 George Street, Charleston, South Carolina
THEME: Celebrating culture in Charleston

They say things move slower in the South, but this was ridiculous.

I thought my weekend trip to Charleston could be the perfect opportunity to break my running streak of tardiness for dinner interviews.

My hotel was a 10-minute drive from the restaurant where stranger Caroline Nuttall and I had agreed to have lunch. Calling for a cab 30 minutes before our meeting time should get me there plenty early, I thought.


First problem was that my driver showed up 45 minutes after I called for a ride. Second problem being that the taxi I clambered into was apparently the slowest moving vehicle in the Palmetto State. As we ambled along the highways and byways of Charleston, we were overtaken by horse-drawn carriages, pedestrians and a car going in reverse.

In a rare break from my driver’s chronic inertia, we moved far enough to pull up outside the destination, a restaurant called the Glass Onion. At least, I think the driver was responsible for getting us there, but there was a light wind blowing that day that might have nudged the car forward.

As I stepped out the cab and the car turned slowly back into traffic, I checked my phone. 30 minutes late. Whoops.

Then Caroline called. The restaurant was closed. I should have known from the vacant seats and the lack of a welcoming “Open” sign. I was about to turn around and flag down my driver. After all, at his pace he’d be within hailing distance for a good hour. But Caroline was parked nearby and kindly offered to drive us to an alternative destination in the city’s historic district.

Our rescheduled lunch was at Caviar & Bananas, a small indoor market and cafe.

On the drive over to our second location, I was quickly won over by Caroline’s natural friendliness and ease talking to strangers. Given her history working in public relations and nowadays in charge of online Charleston magazine Charlie, that’s a skill that must serve her well in public and private life.

Before I could find out more about her past, present and future, we arrived at Caviar & Bananas. It’s a well-lit place with tables and chairs dotted around for people that come in and buy from the wide range of food on offer: snacks, pasta, sushi, cakes, and plenty more.

It’s like walking into a high-end delicatessen, with elaborate creations like meatloaf cupcakes taking the place of cold cuts, and knowledgeable staff happy to share their expertise about what’s on offer.

It was hard to choose among the visually appealing offerings. I felt like a millionaire presented with his pick of Van Goghs, Botticellis and Picassos. Except this was just beautiful, slightly pricy food, and I was standing there with a rubber credit card in worse shape than the Greek economy. But my finances have always been something perilous, so I plunged forward with my purchases.

Caroline and I found a table. I set down my chicken tenders, twice-baked potato, “Bolognese stack” of pancetta, ground pork and fettuccine, and a risotto ball packed with barbecued pork. It was a lot of food, but I was hungry and in need of starchy substance.

My lunch companion went for the much lighter “Watermelon Napoleon,” a stack of watermelon, feta cheese, cucumber, candided nuts and a syringe of vanilla vinaigrette. Yes, a syringe. Normally a device associated more with drawing blood, the syringe allowed for self-serving the vinaigrette. Caroline’s eyes lit up at the prospect of ordering a dish that included a tool more commonly found in a laboratory next to the Bunsen burners.

As we started on our food, Caroline told me that she’s greatly enjoying her life as publisher of Charlie, an online-only magazine devoted to promoting culture in Charleston. Art, music, dance, food — it’s all good fodder for Charlie, which was her creation.

Caroline moved to Charleston roughly six years ago, after a stint in Los Angeles. Born and raised in Virginia, after graduating from Virginia Tech she moved to the City of Angels in 2001 due to a lifelong interest in the entertainment industry. Out there she worked as an assistant to a publicist at Paramount, then as a publicist at talent agency BWR. And to start with, life in LA was everything she imagined in terms of glitz and glamour.

“The first couple of years I lived there I thought that it was just the coolest place and I did it all, I did the Playboy mansion and all the hot spots, hot clubs, whatever, I was in the scene. And I just ultimately got so sick of it. I stayed about a year too long, which was good because I knew that when I was ready to leave I just never wanted to be thinking about coming back,” she said.

Plus, her family’s in Virginia and she’s a self-described East Coast girl. So it was that she thought of the furthest possible place from LA and decided on Charleston. It was that random a choice.

She considered a move to New York, but after staying with a friend in the Big Apple for two weeks realized life would include a lot of what she didn’t like about Los Angeles — the lack of a community feeling, distant people, a judgmental cultural scene. “I just thought, ‘This is the same kind of stuff that I’m trying to get away from but with worse weather.’”

Of life in Los Angeles compared to Charleston, Caroline said, “I felt like there was no perspective on the people and relationships and family. What’s nice about [Charleston] is there’s a community feel. It doesn’t matter if we’re going to this posh club, it matters who you’re with.”

When Caroline moved to Charleston, she quickly decided she’d made the right move. “I had about a week of culture shock and then I just completely fell in love with it. Charleston is just such an amazing city and I remember being so surprised at how much there was to it.”

However, there are few celebrities in Charleston compared to the wafer-thin starlets being stalked across Rodeo Drive by the paparazzi. Caroline’s skill was as a publicist, and so she took work at boutique public relations firms. She began handling national media relations at a PR firm in town, and that’s how she became immersed in the city, finding out everything about arts festivals, chefs, designers and other cultural highlights.

Caroline’s ever-expanding knowledge of the local culture scene meant that friends were soon coming to her asking for recommendations for fun things to experience. “As I was really getting into it, I realized there were so many people who didn’t really take advantage of all the things that the city has to offer,” she said. Charleston has a few local magazines, but they specialize in news or history that appeals to tourists rather than locals. “And I really didn’t feel like there was anything that got to the guts of the city, which is really all of the people,” she added.

“That’s what gave me the idea of Charlie. And then I started it, and it’s just so great because I really get to spend every day looking for things to celebrate about the city, and it’s awesome,” she said.

Apparently the city has become something of a hub for creative types tired of life in New York or Los Angeles. “Normally you don’t have such a high concentration of these incredibly talented people in some random small city and we just are so fortunate to do so.”

After crafting a business plan (Charlie is a full-time job for Caroline), with the help of a designer friend she put together a website at very low cost. The response was immediate and great, with acquaintances and strangers alike thanking her for filling a gap in the cultural markets of food, art and fashion in a way that might not be possible in larger cities.

“I was never really a foodie in LA because no-one ate. And here everybody eats and the chefs are like the rock stars of the town and it’s interesting because you get to know them, you know all these people personally and so there’s an access,” Caroline said.

Speaking of food — seamless transitions, anyone? — the offerings at Caviar & Bananas were wonderful to a fault.

The chicken tender was more like a miniature piece of fried chicken, the crisp and salty crust crumbling off a juicy cut of poultry. The baked potato was a great complement to the chicken, stuffed with rich cheese and delicious bacon — it seemed like destiny brought the two dishes together.

The risotto ball was an outlier, the tangy barbecue sauce a little on the overpowering side compared to the slightly more understated flavors of the chicken and potato. But that’s my fault for mixing and matching, and buying with my stomach, not my mind.

The Bolognese stack was a behemoth of pasta, meat and cheese, and the least interesting of the dishes. The sauce was mild and forgettable, but the pasta and meat were perfect.

Caroline had high praise for the Watermelon Napoleon, after she got the vinaigrette syringe to work. She also spoke fondly of Caviar & Bananas. Judging from the constant stream of locals wandering in and stocking up on the fresh food on offer, it seems like Caroline isn’t the only one who likes the place.

Throughout lunch, we’d get sidetracked with conversation about places in Charleston like Caviar & Bananas that Caroline said I had to try before I left. Alas, I was flying out of the city that night, so my time was limited. But full credit to her. From the moment I met her, she spoke with an upbeat air, offering glowing praise for the city. She’s a remarkably pleasant woman, quick to laugh and with enough pop culture references to qualify as the female Dennis Miller. Except likable.

So she has a website that’s popular with the locals, and is fulfilling a goal of promoting Charleston. All well and good. But if the 1990s taught us anything — other than how terrible a song called “Macarena” can be — it’s that internet ventures aren’t necessarily the most reliable income generators, and are prone to a boom-and-bust cycle.

“For the first two years we had all these writers and photographers working for us for free, which was just amazing,” she said. “We do pay them now and that was exciting to be able to do because I want these people to make a ton of money doing what they love to do.”

Caroline said that she’s been careful with Charlie‘s growth and sustaining the magazine, all thanks to her business plan. It’s about 80 percent advertising supported, with some other revenue raisers including a membership club that offers discounts each month to different events. Reaching out for advertisers in turn creates a happy chain of events, because then she finds out about other cultural attractions in the city.

Being the magazine’s publisher has been Caroline’s day job for almost three years, and being an online-only entity means she can work from home. “It’s awesome because I can do yoga whenever I want during the day, I don’t have to have some corporate BS job that’s like, ‘You can only go during these hours.’ If it’s a beautiful day I’m going to go sailing.”

Nice work if you can get it.

And Caroline has got it. About a year ago she traveled to New Zealand and spent a month living there, yet still updating Charlie on a regular basis. But it wasn’t just about work. She said that travel can sometimes be more beneficial than study, because it broadens the mind. Although she came across as having never said a pessimistic sentence in her life, Caroline expressed disappointment in the fact that some Americans don’t travel and expose themselves to different cultures.

“When I was in New Zealand, it’s not vacation, it’s not like I’m just sitting around in a hammock. I’m exploring and learning about new cultures. It’s broadening your mind,” she said. “I think I’m a positive person, and I push my energy into that and so I don’t regret things, but if I had one regret it would be that I did not study abroad when I was in college.”

On a local scale, Caroline’s just happy exposing the city’s residents to new cultural experiences through her magazine.

So what does the future hold for Charlie?

Caroline’s weighing the possibility of a print component, though it would not be a regular publication. Maybe something more like a one-off print special. She said, “I don’t think that it would ever be like a monthly magazine because people are doing that. Why add more noise to something that’s already being done?”

Alas, with that, our time was up. In an entirely fitting move, Caroline’s schedule for the rest of the day included a “guerrilla” dining event. Yet another Charleston cultural curiosity to explore, and one that she was happy to promote during our all-too-brief lunch.

Based solely off my afternoon with Caroline, it’s clear she’s made the right choice for her. It seems like Charleston will be giving her plenty to write about for a long time to come.

She said, “It’s just cool because when you create your own job, you create the perfect job for you. I love exploring the city, I love finding new things out. I mean, just going and being able to talk to any different people who are doing interesting things. That’s what I get to do for a living now.”

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