After making his name in Sarasota's high-pressure restaurant business, Paul Caragiulo had turns in both Sarasota's City and County commisions. Now the longtime resident, family man, amateur singer and pickup-truck enthusiast is back in public life as teh Chair of Sarasota Chamber of Commerce. SRQ magazine had a chance to sit down with Paul and get deep about his philosophy toward goverance, and the differences between being teh Chair of the Chamber of Commerce and sitting on the County Commison.

SRQ: So, how did you transition from the County Commission to the Chamber of Commerce?  Paul Caragiulo: A couple of years ago, I was on the Chamber of Commerce board. Initially, when I got on the County Commission, there was a seat that was sort of held—back when they did such things here—for the school board, for the city, for the county. All that stuff kind of has evolved since then. But I was on the board for pretty much the entire time I was on the County Commission as a representative of the county. Before my term was about to end, after I had determined that I wasn’t running again, the previous chair and the executive director approached me and asked if I would be interested in being the chair. When you’re on a board like this and you’re representing government interest—like I was, as a member of the County Commission—you are there representing other people technically. So one has to very selectively engage about taking positions on things, just because it’s really not about your position. You’re there as an official representation of a much larger group. Now that I’m back representing the private sector, I’m a little more free to engage. It’s what I really like doing. I love policy work. I mean, I don’t like politics, but I love policy work. When you’re doing constituent service and you’re an elected official, you really don’t get to work on policy in the same way—at least if you’re running your desk the way I did, which is coming from the restaurant business. For me it’s a customer service thing, so you don’t necessarily get to work on all the stuff that you want to. Well, here, in my position at the Chamber, things are a little more narrowly focused and it’s more participatory for what some of my stronger feelings and ideas are that have to do with the overall economic environment.


This actually hadn’t occurred to me until you started talking, but running a restaurant, even if you’re not personally waiting tables, is very front-facing. The County Commission is similar in that regard. It’s people work.  One has to genuinely have an interest in people. I can tell you that one of the reasons why the Caragiulos have been successful for 30 years is because that’s who we are as hospitalitarians—we come from a “yes” culture. We come from the world of, “The answer is yes. What’s the question?” You can’t do that when you’re elected to the commissioner’s office, making promises that you can’t keep, speaking for other people, taking positions on things or inevitably getting involved in the administrative level of government, which is not where you’re supposed to be at all as a commissioner. So there are some challenges there, but, still, I think I’m pretty honest with people. If you were to speak with the people that I’ve had contact with, in my professional life, I think that fact would be fairly conspicuous. I’m a person who just likes talking on the phone. I like to see people in person. I don’t have any interest in saying it into an interfacing device if I can avoid it.


So authenticity, it’s a big part of your guiding philosophy?  More sincerity, I think, than authenticity. But it’s like anything else. It’s a skill set. I don’t think anyone really wanders into political office and knows what to do. Any normally wired person takes time to find their voice. They gain a little bit of confidence when you’re sitting there. What you’ll hear probably universally from just about anybody who does the job is that it is absolutely nothing like you think it’s going to be when you start. But gosh, I mean, you do the job. I wandered into the City Commission. I finished at the City Commission literally at like 9:30pm on a Monday night, and at Tuesday at 9am, I was on the County Commission. I can tell you there are a lot of things that if I went back into that world that I would do differently, because I would just know so much. Not philosophically, but just functionally, I would do things very differently. There’s no substitute for this cliché and campy as it might sound, there’s really no substitute for being truthful, not because I’m a good person, just because it’s easier. When you have to run around and try to remember what you said to which person and play that game, it’s like “Forget it.”


What are the risks and rewards of being a sincere politician, given that you represent the interests of other people?  Let’s test the space out. Right? One of the things that’s very different about being in the local stuff is the level of access is completely different. Your constituent contact is at its most primal and organic sort of thing, which does have an effect. Let’s say you’re a CPA, and you go into your business and do what you’re going to do. You’re in your office. You get a fairly tertiary kind of interaction with people. That’s one thing. But, say, if you’re in the restaurant business, it’s a whole different thing. My point is that you’re never off, because you’re there, you’re out there, you’re at your kid’s school, you’re at church, or you’re at whatever you’re doing, and that never stops, whereas the extreme when you are higher in the tier, you might say, access is very limited and becomes very limited very quickly once you wander after a certain point. Which is why relationships matter, ultimately. I think I was able to do a pretty good job at what I was doing because I made relationships with people in the state legislature and the congress, and that’s where it kind of helps. But, again, it’s a difference. See, I don’t have any interest in doing that stuff because it’s too complicated. I don’t want to walk around and check the doors for heat everywhere I go. I don’t have the attention span for it. So it’s good and bad. I don’t belong in that world. You know why? Because I don’t have the discipline to say, “I’ll let so-and-so take care of that” or “Speak to so-and-so.”  If I have to take the time to explain something to someone, I could’ve got it done myself which is not the most effective way to operate, but it’s the way that I know how.


So I’m sure I am not the first person to say this, but being good with people, it’s really hard to teach. So how did you wind up with that skill set?   Hey, some people like trees, and some people like people. I don’t know. I’m the youngest of six kids. So there was never a shortage of people around. I have a very large, very close family. We lived next to my grandparents. I mean, there were always people around. I don’t know what it’s like to not have a bunch of people around. So I was doing an Eagle Scout board of review the other night, and one of the things that you spend a lot of time talking about in the program— the service project. So, depending on the scale of the project, one of the things that can come into the mix is fundraising. Some projects require a kid to go out and to raise $5,000 for a project—in this case, a gazebo for a church. I was looking at the document and I see the whole list of donations. It’s pages and pages of these names and $10 or $15 or $50 or whatever it was. I asked the kid, “Did you go and ask all these people for money?” As a politician, that’s fascinating to me, because if you want to know something that I absolutely hate, it’s that. I can’t ask people for money who owe me money, let alone people who don’t. So I asked the kid, “How did you do that?” He’s like, “No, I don’t have a problem. ” I’m like, “Dude, I know you want to be an engineer, but you’re in the five percentile of people if you can do this and it doesn’t bother you, or you don’t find it cumbersome or embarrassing or don’t have that vulnerability.


what’s the restaurant portfolio look like right now? If you don’t mind my asking.  There are a bunch of places, but I only have a specific interest in two.  I stepped out back when I was on the City Commission, but I was very fortunate that my siblings and business partners were very supportive of what I was doing. So now I’m kind of anxious to get back. I think you would be hard-pressed to find another bunch of Italian males who can work together so effectively and peacefully. In hospitality, at the end of the day, you are inevitably making an investment in people. I think the food part of what we do is sort of incidental because we’re about spaces and the feelings of where we are, this idea of sense of place.