by Devinn Schwarzman | photo by Jonathan Postal
I started working for Karen Blockman Carrier, or KBC, in 2015 when I needed a safe haven, which KBC provided as she’d done to many before me. I still refer to her staff as the “Island of Misfit Toys”, due to KBC’s accumulation of wonderfully distinct folx who unwittingly become family. With a heart as immense and open as her collection of Amy Downs hats, Karen is the mama you are graced with. KBC is a fashionable character with food on the brain and a take-no-crap attitude, which makes working with her a safe place for any walk of weird.
For over 35 years, KBC has created art–from eccentric dishes to a first love of painting and glasswork. In NYC, on a scholarship for a painting master’s, she enrolled at the New York Cooking School for an immersive 6 week course–but she needed money. It would be in the restroom of a trendy restaurant where KBC met Susanna Trilling (a top NYC caterer) and her path entirely changed. Wanting a joint, she had followed the smell of ganja to the women’s room, and walked out having gained work with Susanna at Seasons of My Heart catering, located in the Skid Row district. One pair of rickety stairs later, having met women from all over the globe, she entered the world of catering and graduate school was a thing of the past. She rose through the ranks, even catering Calvin Klein’s 50th birthday party. On July 4th of 1986, she opened her first spot in New York, Automatic Slim’s, using a shoe box as a cash register. She married Bob, a fellow Memphian, and with a bun in the oven, returned to our fair city determined to set the Memphis catering scene ablaze. Yet she wanted more, and with an eclectic mix of funky food and a very artsy crew, came Automatic Slim’s, opening in 1991.
People didn’t know what to think about this place. It was a “good ol’ boys” world so they didn’t give this tiny-but-mighty woman much time in the industry. That is, until she turned her house into a new place: ‘Cielo’, in one of her so-called “six year itch” phases. Meaning “heaven” in Spanish, Cielo opened in ‘96 and was soon followed by yet another itch. The Beauty Shop Restaurant launched in 2002 with a general store next door selling everything from candy to bikes (and, yes, hats). This general store–now Bar DKDC (“I don’t know and I don’t care— her words when asked to name the place)–was a female-run sushi bar before it was a stage for Memphis musicians and artists alike. After several more “itches”, including the creation of Mollie Fontaine’s from the ashes of Cielo, a global pandemic arose and it was time to “really pivot”. “This life is really nuts, actually”, she would later reflect.
Switching to a to-go only menu for a spell, Karen introduced domes and greenhouses to help people stay safe and fed. The funky space out back of The Beauty Shop became a lifesaver in the times of dining restrictions, and allowed for more people to eat— including the staff!! To say these last few years have been tough on the industry would be an understatement, but KBC has made and maintained a whole empire by thinking on her feet.
Time spent with KBC has been done so in awe. It is like watching an artist craft her masterpiece, both palates satiated. Watching a woman fight her way to the top in a predominantly male industry. Mostly, it is watching someone create a space of both brilliance and insanity, all while bringing style and inclusivity to the table. With a hat that enters the room before she does, there’s no denying that KBC is a force to be reckoned with.
“I don’t know how to run a biz unless it’s family”, she says. “You break bread with these people, you listen to their woes, and you help them along the way. The beauty of this shop is the longevity of the staff that’s been here. I believe in treating people how I wanna be treated. As they say in Jamaica—‘bless up’, and we are blessed around here.”