Colombian Bartender Shakes Up Cocktail World in Paris

Colombian Bartender Shakes Up Cocktail World in Paris

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Carina Soto Velasquez, one of world's top bartenders. © Thomas Smith

She’s beautiful, brazen and concocts a superb, spirited cocktail. Carina Soto Velásquez means business. At the age of 32, she and her innovative Quixotic Project team own five of the hottest bar/restaurants in Paris. Her latest venture, Les Grands Verres in the Palais de Tokyo Museum, is creating a buzz in the city’s west end for its late night cocktail bar and super-friendly restaurant in a sustainable environment.

A woman of firsts, Carina introduced new Latin-American spirits to a traditional French clientele. Combine her innovative cocktails with tasty finger food and fresh oysters in a cool neighborhood setting, and you can see how each of her establishments – La Candelaria, Le Mary Celeste, the Glass and the Hero – became overnight sensations.

INSPIRELLE joined Carina at Candelaria, her original bar in the Marais, where she explains it takes a lot of key ingredients to make a business thrive.

Carina Soto Velasquez
Carina Soto Velásquez at Candelaria bar in Paris. © Alexis Duclos for INSPIRELLE

How does a Colombian student in Paris become one of the world’s best bartenders and owner of five businesses by the age of 32? What’s the magic cocktail for this?

I think it’s just working hard. In South America, you work hard. I came here as a 19-year-old student studying sociology and right away looked for a student job, working in restaurants. I worked in multiple places and discovered that I was quite happy working in restaurants. One of my mentors told me of a Colombian woman who owned a restaurant for 13 years and she was really good at keeping that place easy and well organized. So I worked for her for around two years and learned a lot about her economics.

And then I was like, “Well, I can’t stay in this restaurant forever, so why not learn about it?”

So I switched to marketing and management in hospitality and at the same time I discovered cocktails during university and started working at cocktail bars. That was the beginning of the craft cocktail movement in Paris. This new wave of craft cocktails had been already very present in the US and the UK since 2000 and it made bartenders very famous through competitions. Paris was not really part of this movement until the Experimental Cocktail Club opened in May 2007 and I started working there in October. I was their first employee and I just fell in love with that bar. It was great and opened the path to new opportunities, enabling my career as a bartender to take off.

Cocktails at Glass bar. © Quixotic Projects

Bartending is one of the oldest professions in the world. What does it mean to be a modern bartender?

Brands wanted cocktails for launching their whiskeys or for launching their vodka and such, and importers were excited that people were finally drinking something different and not the same brands that we find at any café. Then importers started bringing new brands and new stuff and we started making cocktails for them. I started reading blogs and books about all this movement of craft cocktails in the late 90s and early 2000s in the US, and bartenders like Dale Degroff and strong women in the cocktail industry were my inspiration. I started training people and training bartenders too. Basically, what I did was bring a bit of freshness to the cocktails that were in Paris at that time.

How did you go from being a bartender to actually being a businesswoman?

I wanted to own my business. It was something I learned working for others, and I was like, “Well, why not, I can try. The worst thing that happens is that it doesn’t happen.”

At that time, I met my business partners, Joshua and Adam, working at the Experimental Bar and we started talking about things that were missing here in Paris.

Le Mary Celeste Seafood/Oyster Winebar. © Diane Yoon for Quixotic Projects

It was sad that you could find amazing cocktails in Berlin and you could get good street food in London with great cocktails. You could not find food in Paris that you could eat with your hands that wasn’t a crepe or a panini or a sandwich. Even hot dogs weren’t really a trend in France yet, and burgers weren’t what they are today. I lived in New York for a while and they love Mexican food. We saw that tacos were missing from the Paris scene and we needed to do that. That is how it came together.

We combined this with my reputation for using my Latino-American spirits that were not as popular at that time. People had a really bad misconception about tequila, for example, and they would only think about rum or mojitos. There was a lot of work to do in that area and that is when we all came together. So Candelaria is traditional and the Mexican tacos are, like everything, made in-house; it’s a fresh menu. We have 3-4 tacos maximum and it rotates constantly with good spicy sauce and all things you would actually enjoy in eating good tacos in the US or anywhere else—but it’s here in Paris. And the bar is more international; it is not Mexican, but a newer version of what Latino American can be.

Carina Soto Velásquez and partners Joshua Fontaine (center) and Adam Tsou (left). © Quixotic Projects

You and your American business partner, American Joshua Fontaine, are not French, and your third partner, your husband Adam Tsou, studied in the US. Do you think your international backgrounds make it easier or harder to look for investors? 

We took a big risk. We did need investors as we had no money. What we had was networking and we had a context for our business. Since I had been working in this industry for so long I knew the distributors, but not people in the banks. We began talking about our project, we started building a package of investors and people randomly—like people we didn’t even know—started supporting our business. Like the father of our waitress, who had worked three months with me… this man said, “I am interested in your project and my daughter loves working with you.” So there was this entire process to raise money; and, among the investors, one person knew someone in a bank and they helped us to get a loan to get launched.

You have five businesses now. Do you ever take a step back and say how did that happen?

Times goes super fast. It’s crazy. This year, the bank loan will be fully paid back so finally, we are going to be without the bank loan. But each business has to go through this process.

I think we like to do things that don’t make money. Ha ha! Our establishments are very controversial in a way. When we create a business, we want it to be unique, to be different.

When people walk in they say, “Oh, we haven’t seen this before. This is different or it creates something new.”

Les Grands Verres restaurant/bar at the Palais de Tokyo Museum. © Quixotic Projects

All our restaurants create an impact. The oyster bar with cocktails. The tacos with cocktails. In our newest place Les Grands Verres in the Palais de Tokyo Museum, we were confronted with such a big space. To use the space wisely we created a restaurant and bar that minimizes waste. Our distributors are asked to deliver products in buckets. The chef will ferment the skin of the carrots instead of throwing them out and will make crackers with them.

We don’t use any straws, no plastic, and no garnishes that are not edible, for example, or that we are going to throw out. No papers or napkins, things like that. And the spirits selection, like the alcohol, we only buy in big bulk like 220 liters. We don’t buy bottles, so we don’t throw away much glass. The only glass bottles we have are of wine. And we recycle a good 30% of those glass bottles. The majority of the suppliers’ carbon footprints are small; they are from Europe/France. We even pay attention to making ice. We have a giant machine that makes two huge cubes and we don’t waste water; like we don’t have a machine running water 24 hours. 

Carina Soto Velasquez
Carina Soto Velásquez. © Alexis Duclos for INSPIRELLE

What advice do you have for other international women who are hesitating or feeling overwhelmed by starting a business here?

The challenge of opening a business in Paris is basically to keep it growing. To start a business is not difficult; to keep it alive is the challenge because the French labor laws are complicated and taxes are high.

Surround yourself with some good people who understand financing and who can help you raise money and pay back your investors. These should be people who believe and support your brand. If they like working with you, they will work with you and defend you.

You really need to know your business plan. You can’t expand blindly as it is too much of a risk, at least for us. We need to work on each business plan. It needs to be solid, it needs to be discussed multiple times with lawyers, with our accountant, with the people we trust. And, if we use the same resources or different ones, how does it affect the business plan and the way you move forward? The pros and cons of every scenario are super important and should be well advised.

When you open a second business, the charges get high. It also doubles the amount of work but not money right away so you have to understand that you need somebody to help you in the office for example. You need to hire somebody to take care of business details. With each new business added, there are more responsibilities and expenses; so know what you are doing.

With five businesses to run day and night, how do you find that balance between personal and professional life?

The thing we enjoy here in France is that you have a lifestyle which you won’t have anywhere else. As a business owner, I am able to take time off and give my employees a 5-week vacation because they are entitled to it under the law. I don’t take five weeks off but the workers do. As an entrepreneur, it’s important to see your staff happy.

Imagine being an entrepreneur in New York who owns six restaurants, who gives five weeks vacation to staff and takes two weeks of vacation herself? Nobody would find that cool to say. Yet, it can be said freely in France; it is something very particular here.

Fortunately, there are three of us in the business and we take turns being where we are needed. We keep working hard because we want to keep doing things. We want our company to keep growing, not just for us but also for the people who work with us and believe in us.

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