Food & DrinkFood Features

As Carpe Diem’s Doors Close, A Window Opens at Earl’s Grocery

Seize the grocery

When sisters Bonnie Warford and Tricia Maddrey closed their iconic Carpe Diem Restaurant and Caterers in the spring, they didn’t know it would be for the last time. The sisters opened the restaurant in 1989, and they shut down in March with hopes that the COVID-19 stay-at-home order would only last a month or two. By June, however, the sisters had to make the heartbreaking announcement that after 30 years, Carpe Diem was shutting its doors, making the Elizabeth staple one of the first restaurants in Charlotte to close permanently because of the pandemic.

The decision to close came at a point when it made more sense for them financially to shut down, finish out the last seven months of their lease and regroup than to try to stay open. During the initial close, they lost over $30,000 worth of fresh produce and meat, not to mention their head chef, who took another job offer with the support of Warford and Maddrey, who couldn’t promise anything in regards to Carpe Diem’s future. With three immuno-compromised staff members who couldn’t return to work anytime soon, they saw no other option but to close completely.

“We have put quite a bit of thought into this difficult decision. The financial loss that we incurred as a result of the shut down combined with the uncertainty of reopening at this time was simply too much,” the sisters lamented in a statement to patrons and neighbors on their website. “We have shown great tenacity in the face of many challenges over the years, but the upheaval created by the pandemic is going to take time for the restaurant industry to sort out, and we simply felt it best to refocus and move on.”

The unshakable sisters weren’t giving up completely, however. In the same statement, they announced the planned reimagining of Earl’s Grocery, another local joint they own just a few doors down from the former Carpe Diem on Elizabeth Avenue. With less than a month left on Earl’s lease, rather than riding out the remaining time and closing for good, Warford and Maddrey chose to take a leap of faith and extend it for another six, then revamp and reopen the popular shop.

Leap of Faith

Before committing to resigning the lease, they mulled over finding a smaller place or implementing some other way to thrive within the current set-up. The sisters realized they weren’t utilizing Earl’s space in the most strategic way and it no longer made sense to just offer specialty items. Their six-month plan gave the sisters enough time to reimagine the layout and purpose of the part-counter-service restaurant, part-specialty-food store and give it a fighting chance at survival.

Since Earl’s Grocery opened back in 2014, it came to be known mainly for being a restaurant that offered over-the-counter lunch service and a couple of specialty grab-and-go items. The result was not really what they had envisioned or expected in the beginning, as they had envisioned it being a grocery store first and foremost. “When COVID happened, we were like, this is kind of our opportunity to do what we originally wanted to do, which was be more of a grocery store,” Warford told Queen City Nerve.

Earl’s Grocery (Photo courtesy of Earl’s Grocery)

Earl’s now offers a well-curated mix of everyday cleaning products, cereal, canned goods and specialty items, including a handful of local favorites such as Homeland Creamery milk, Duke’s Bread, Chef Alyssa’s Spreads, Cannizzaro sauces, and Pure Intentions Coffee. Shoppers can find restaurant-grade meat from purveyors such as Springer Mountain Chicken, Koch Turkey, Beeler Pork and Brasstown beef. They use the same seafood supplier that provided regional catches for Carpe Diem when it was open.

For the time being, Earl’s menu will shift exclusively to takeout and offer favorites from both restaurants, including Carpe’s iconic buttermilk fried chicken and Korean carrots and Earl’s harvest salad, among others.

Sisters and Partners

When Warford and Maddrey opened Carpe Diem Restaurant in 1989, the duo weathered moves, economic downturns, and a slew of time-consuming construction projects. You’d think that after growing up and eventually co-owning two businesses together, the stress would take a toll on their relationship as siblings, but Warford and Maddrey truly act as a support system for one another.

“We’re honestly lucky that we work so well together,” Warford said. “Sure, we get frustrated occasionally but she does more of the back of the house stuff and I do more of the front of the house stuff, so because we have our own areas, we don’t really step on each other’s toes as much.”

The tradition of entrepreneurship runs in the family, with both sets of great-grandparents being involved in the food industry at one point in time. One owned a grocery store in Pennsylvania and the other a bakery in Miami. Both sisters moved to Charlotte after growing up in Miami.

Bonnie moved to pursue a degree in Business at Queens College with Tricia following shortly after. Business degree in hand and dreaming of being an entrepreneur, Bonnie started out in the restaurant industry and worked her way up. She always enjoyed making people happy and working in the service industry gave the chance to make a career of it. They never expected to open such an impactful place. “We were so naive,” Warford recalled.

Bumps in the Road

Fast forward to 2020, and naivete is far from a description for the two sisters, who have faced each oncoming hurdle with pragmatism. The COVID-inspired pivot hasn’t been without challenges. “There have been unbelievable obstacles at every stage,” Warford said. “The food business is in chaos right now with outages, expired products on vendor shelves, and many people being laid off, causing slow implementation.”

The sisters added online ordering through the ChowNow app to help Earl’s replace the foot traffic that it once had pre-COVID. “It’s still slow to catch on,” Warford said about the transition. “First of all, we don’t have as many people walking around this area because they’re not in the offices as much or the school.”

People that may not know about the space tucked away in the heart of Elizabeth now have another avenue to come across it and explore their offerings. What they find is never what they expect. Smaller independently owned grocery stores tend to only carry niche options and cater to patrons with more disposable income. Warford aims to bridge the gap between the average grocery store experience and specialty stores by offering the best product at the highest quality and for the most affordable cost.

Balance and flexibility have been the key ingredients in curating the selection, she said. It helps that products change according to patron requests and comments.“I think our biggest challenge is getting people to say, ‘No, they’ve got like regular groceries.’” Warford noted. “When people come in they’re, like, ‘Oh you have a lot of stuff … We didn’t realize you have this much stuff.”

Once things settle down a bit, they hope to offer an online grocery shopping option for curbside pickup. Online ordering for to-go food is already up and running and available through the website. Earl’s Grocery is open 10:30 a.m.-7 p.m. Monday-Saturday, with takeout starting at 1 p.m.

Still Having Fun

Warford and Maddrey may have gone through a hellish few months, putting out fire after fire, but their goal remains the same: Provide great service to whoever walks through the door. During our recent visit to Earl’s, Warford gave us an in-depth tour of the space, pointing out ingredients that you couldn’t find in the average grocery store and explaining why each one was purchased.

Each explanation had a similar theme — a guest was looking for something, couldn’t find it, and Bonnie ordered the specific item and texted the customer once it came in. Despite the pandemic, everything the sisters do is inspired by their desire to create a community of food lovers. At Earl’s Grocery, folks get the choice of quality groceries — each item picked out by Warford herself. She encourages guests to tell her what they want Earl’s to carry on the shelf. “Whether it’s a soda from Michigan, a potato chip from Ohio, or a hot sauce from Brooklyn, tell us what you crave. We want to try it, too,” Earl’s website states.

Sisters Bonnie Warford (left) and Tricia Maddrey (right) in front of Earl’s Grocery on Elizabeth Avenue. (Photo by Grant Baldwin)

With the reputation the sisters have built and a prime location in Elizabeth, the concept of a local, neighborhood grocer is much needed. Their shared love for customer service and crafting the perfect guest experience led them to offer a service that you can’t find at any grocery chain in Charlotte. “I think shoppers will grow to trust our choices of products and quality,” Warford shares.

The recently closed Carpe Diem and reimagined Earl’s Grocery are testaments to the sisters’ drive, showing that, no matter what, they have given their all throughout the entirety of their careers. The hospitality community is suffering now more than ever. Restaurants and bars are struggling to stay open and many are staying afloat by the skin of their teeth. With over six decades of service industry experience under their belts between them, Warford and Maddrey managed to stay flexible and true to their values even in the midst of a pandemic.

“If we’re not having fun, then why would we do it?” Warford asked. At a time when not many folks are having fun, it’s an important question to keep in mind.

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