Tony Arcuri tried to get his childhood friend into hobbies. Arcuri wanted his Pittsburgh compadre to enjoy the fruits of their collective labor as he built his guitar collection or became enthralled with an old motorcycle, but Steve Carb was just never about things.
He had a singular focus.
“Steve’s passion was people and his restaurants,” Arcuri said of his friend of 50-plus years and fellow SERG Group co-founder, who died Oct. 8 at the age of 63. “We grew up together, went to high school and college together, found the Lowcountry together and every step of the way, he had this dream and was so committed to it. And every step of the way, he did it with humility and compassion.”
Stories of Carb’s impact on Bluffton and the Lowcountry flooded the airwaves and social media soon after his passing, from the folks who met him once and thought he was a busboy as he ran around Poseidon bussing tables, to his friends and business partners who marveled at his attention to detail, his constant brainstorming and his legendary yellow legal pads.
“I will always remember him sketching logos for his upcoming restaurants on those famous yellow pads,” said co-worker Joanne Petro.
“I think he slept with those yellow pads. On the beach, out at dinner, inspecting a kitchen, that pad was attached to him,” said Guiseppi’s Pizza managing partner Jim Loniero. “He’d be over at my house watching a Steelers game, a commercial would come on and there would be Steve jotting an idea he saw on to those pads. He was relentless with creating and always thinking of what’s next.”
Almost as ubiquitous in the early days was the constant menu grabs in pursuit of the perfect pizza recipe.
“This was the early ’80s, there was no internet, no easy access to menus. So we’d travel all over and everywhere we went, he’d see a dinner item or a font on a menu and want to bring it back to the island,” Arcuri said.
Robert “Moose” Rini first met Carb as a pizza delivery driver at Guiseppi’s. He admired Carb, growing up a few years apart in Pittsburgh, and became a confidante and travel buddy, one of the few that could get Carb to occasionally take his foot off the pedal.
“I took him four wheeling in the Georgia mountains, we went to Costa Rica, Vegas, Biloxi, Steelers and Dolphins games, but everywhere we went, we were always stealing those menus,” Rini said. “It was always research and development. We’d see an over-the-top dessert, Steve would grab a disposable camera and take a picture. He was relentless. I remember staying at the Bellagio, ready to relax. Then Steve knocked on my door, said, ‘Let’s go to the restaurants, Moose.’ I’d say which one. And he smiled and said, ‘All of them.’”
Rini knows he’s a bit biased, but he sees Carb as one of the true pioneers of the modern Lowcountry landscape, the builder of the largest employer in the region, a person who helped turn the F&B life into sustainable careers for so many.
“Charles Fraser put Hilton Head Island on the map, he had the vision of a resort community,” Rini said. “Steve had the vision of serving and entertaining all those people and for giving his staff a path to truly investing in the business.”
Arcuri said from the very earliest days, that pathway was crucial to the growth of SERG.
“It began with plucking Jimmy from his radio DJ days to help me run Giuseppi’s. Tony at Wiseguys, Chris Spargur at Skull Creek, our new company president Alan Wolf, they all began behind the bar,” Arcuri said. “We have 35 partners now in this group and it is all built on that buy-in, backing up folks’ commitment to the mission with ownership in the mission.”
The passion for people was more than just the food for Carb. His commitment to building up the community was just as legendary.
“In the Asian culture, Steve was the epitome of what we would call ‘The Golden Boy’. Everything he touches turns to gold. His generosity was endless,” said friend Linda Peterson. She said that no matter what nonprofit she approached Carb to support, he always got his staff to buy-in. “He’d sponsor events, cater them for free. He was so busy but always followed up with me every time.”
Connie Lindler will never forget Carb’s commitment to caring during Hurricane Matthew.
“He did so much for so many when Matthew hit. I truly enjoyed working with him and his incredible family of staff to feed hundreds of people on short notice,” she said.
Loniero said that Carb’s 700-plus employees and his restaurants were his family. Animals also held a special place in his heart. Carb was an ardent supporter of the Hilton Head Island Humane Society and a serial dog owner, including his final two companion pups, Frankie and Sheldon.
“I remember years ago living next to him in Windmill Harbor. A stray cat comes to our door and we had too many cats and dogs at that point. I knew just what to do,” Arcuri said. “I put this little orange cat on Steve’s doorstep, I watched him love on this kitten for an hour. He took him in and loved him for 15 years.”
He gave Rini $400 to take a career leap and get his real estate license. He paid for Arcuri’s honeymoon to the Bahamas back in the day.
Heart, playfulness, passion and giving – it’s the common threads of every tale of Carb’s immeasurable impact.
“You’d think here’s this guy that helped build the backbone of our area’s hospitality and real estate economy. You envision this hard-core businessman, but that was never the truth,” Loniero said. “He was the most unique person I have ever met. To be so much about the thousand little details but to still have that heart, that wonder, that enthusiasm. He was my mentor, he gave me my MBA on the ground, not in the classroom. And so much of that is just rooted in caring.
“He didn’t play golf, wasn’t a vacation guy. His life was making the rounds to his restaurants, jumping in to bus tables when he saw the crew getting slammed. Giving, not taking,” Loniero said. “He never forgot his roots, never took himself too seriously. I told him, ‘you have nothing left to prove, retire and enjoy what you have earned.’ He just was never about stuff. He told me he wouldn’t know how to stop caring.”
Arcuri said that Carb embodied the saying they learned decades ago in their college fraternity.
“He was all about humility before greatness,” Arcuri said. “Listen, we knew, we were just three schleps from Pittsburgh. Steve was an idea guy but he was a worker at heart. It’s in his bones, in his soul.”
Carb’s family and friends that in lieu of flowers or gifts, supporters send donations to the Hilton Head Humane Society at hhhumane.org and to the Association for Frontotemporal Degeneration at theaftd.org, which raises awareness for the form of early onset dementia Carb fought since being diagnosed three years ago.
“It wasn’t fair that (FTD) was part of his last chapter, but he was graceful and loving to the end,” Loniero said. “The journey won’t be nearly the same or nearly as much fun without Steve.”
Tim Wood is a veteran journalist based in Bluffton. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.