Karalee Nielsen is sitting with fellow bigwigs the likes of Duckworth, Lata, Baxter, Bakst, Graham, Harrison and Cebulka. They talk for hours about how they can move Charleston forward. That was 2003.
Fast-forward a decade: Karalee sees an empty building. In the beginning stages of opening Lee Lee’s Hot Kitchen, her tenth in her restaurant career, she’s busy enough. Yet she can’t help acting on the potential of this uninhabited space. A year later, it became #11, The Park Cafe.
That’s what Karalee’s about, really. Seeing a need and wanting to fill it. She collaborates with likeminded chefs looking for a platform, and she gives them one. She examines the market and works to close the gaps. Take Lee Lee’s: Downtown Charleston needed authentic Chinese cuisine. Karalee had an old friend who would be the perfect chef to helm it. When she found the ideal spot on President Street, the rest is history.
“I didn’t know what I wanted to do,” Karalee says. “I dropped out of school to open a restaurant because there was something about it. I’ve just been in the right place at the right time ever since.”
That’s the theme, it seems. She makes life (and restaurant) choices by seeing opportunities. Each unique in their concepts, Karalee’s restaurants—from Taco Boy to Royal American—contribute diversity to Charleston’s rich food scene. She’s committed to helping use the food and beverage industry as a source for sustainable development as well as bring more ethnic establishments to the Lowcountry.
Karalee also plans to expand The Green Heart Project—her non-profit organization that gives young kids an education in the value of farming—to local high schoolers, who would receive access to internships and support after they graduate.
While Karalee’s work is in building Charleston’s diverse restaurant scene (literally: she’s a commercial contractor), her real business is in people. Driven by creating, Karalee believes that collaboration and community is the force that propels Charleston forward.
“It’s the people I’ve worked with and met that really inspire me. They drive me to create something meaningful and lasting here.”
So, if you find yourself sitting in the same room as Karalee, you must be doing something right.