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Embracing Change, Seizing The Moment For Love

bonnie and emily.JPG
Kim Hummel
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Bonnie Warford (left) proposed to her partner, Emily Plauché, on Feb. 6.

Bonnie Warford and her sister Tricia Maddrey have leaned on each other since they were kids. That continued as they took turns caring for their other sister, Susan Winter, who was battling lung cancer recently.

"During that time, there wasn't anything on my mind but that, to be honest with you," Warford, now 57, remembers.

On a warm April day in Plaza Midwood's Midwood Park, Warford reflected on that time when Winter was sick and everything was put on pause. It was only when Winter died in October of 2019 that Warford started to think about herself again.

"I started thinking, 'OK, I'm going to get back to thinking healthily and get back to my life.' And then COVID happened, so that kind of thwarted things," she said with a chuckle. "Then as the pandemic stretched on, I was like, 'I need something positive. We need positive things to happen.'"

Before they could get to the positive, Warford and Maddrey would have to fare through a pandemic no one was planning for.

The sisters owned Carpe Diem— a fine dining restaurant on Charlotte's Elizabeth Avenue — for more than 30 years. Maddrey loved the kitchen side of things, and Warford was drawn to the front of the house.

carpediem_historic.jpg
Deborah Triplett
Bonnie and Tricia at the 1989 opening of Carpe Diem.

"I implicitly trust her," Warford said. "So that was never a worry, which is really nice. And, you know, just you always know someone's got your back."

They continued to have each other’s backs when the world shut down and the restaurant closed in March of 2020 … and while their chef and longtime staff members left.

They thought about what it would look like to reopen.

"So, basically, we're going to restock the entire restaurant, then we're going to train a new chef, and then we're going to hire a new manager and new staff," Warford said. "It's going to be like opening a new restaurant with completely different people."

The restaurant had no outdoor seating and takeout ordering was a challenge.

"Honestly, fine dining doesn't translate well to takeout," Warford said. "Who wants to get a filet medium-rare, get it home, and by the time they get it home, it's medium-well or, you know, it's cold? It's just too expensive a food."

They decided it made more sense to pay out the rest of their lease than to reopen.

"So that's what we did," Warford said. "We just decided I'd rather lose money than to work hard to lose money. So we just paid rent for the seven months."

Financially, it was the right decision. Emotionally, she says, it was a weird way to say goodbye. She had figured when they were ready to retire, they’d be selling the business — not closing because of a global pandemic.

Even under normal circumstances, running a restaurant is not for the faint of heart. You need endurance, Warford says. You need to be resourceful and resilient in good times and in bad.

"I mean, we've taken out equity lines on our houses during the financial thing in 2007. We both did that," she said. "We've juggled credit cards at some point, you know, and just transferred balances. I mean, that's what all small business people go through, I think."

And they would have done it all again, Warford said. But after 30 years and not knowing when the pandemic would end, they had to ask themselves — at what cost?

In this case, resiliency was knowing when to stop.

"You can't change COVID and you can't control a pandemic," Warford said. "We would come out in a lot of debt. And we just weren't willing to do that, not at this point.

"What I would tell other people (is) you have to operate your business every day like you're going to close. Like, if you look at it like if something else like the pandemic happened — which we all know now, it could at any time — you know, are you prepared to be lean?"

The decision to close didn’t come lightly — but it definitely came with a plan. Warford and Maddrey also co-own Earl’s Grocery. They opened that small shop in 2014 and it’s located some 200 feet away from Carpe Diem.

With the closure of Carpe Diem, they shifted their focus to Earl’s which offers prepared food to-go. They played with the menu and added more conventional grocery items to go alongside the specialty finds Earl’s is known for. Earl’s has takeout options and outdoor seating. Earl’s could adapt to the new pandemic world in a way Carpe Diem just couldn’t.

And that adaptability is something Warford's reflected on for herself.

In between the time her sister Susan died in late 2019 and before the pandemic hit Charlotte, Warford was shedding her caretaker role and thinking about her future. She knew she wanted to propose to her partner, Emily Plauché — who had made it clear Warford would have to be the one to do the asking.

"She said, 'OK, well, that took like four months to get you to even pay attention. So you get to propose,'" Warford said, smiling.

Warford realized as the pandemic rolled into 2021, she needed something positive to look forward to — and that she didn’t need to wait for the pandemic to end to have that.

Plauché is originally from Louisiana and loves the culture, especially how people celebrate life and community. What better way to propose, Warford thought, than to have a surprise, socially distant, Mardi Gras-inspired parade that would end with her popping the big question?

On Feb. 6, a group of about 50 friends gathered in Midwood Park — right where this interview took place — dressed in their colorful costumes. Unbeknownst to Plauché, her mom even flew out to be a part of the parade.

The couple was at home while the crowd slowly started to make its way up to their front yard. Warford tried to play it cool.

"I was very nervous because I just wanted everything to go correctly," Warford said. "And I heard the band like in the faint distance. Of course, she hadn't heard at this point. She wasn't looking for it. And then as it got louder, she was like, 'What is going on?' She looked out the window and couldn’t see anything."

Led by the Cajun band The Carolina Gator Gumbo, the group walked the several blocks from the park to Warford's home, which was decked out with lights, with a large tree in the front yard draped in purple, green, and gold beaded necklaces.

"And then she went to the front door and she was like, 'Oh, there's a parade coming down the street, come outside,'" Warford said. "And she thought that it was just somebody else in the neighborhood who loved Mardi Gras. So she just started dancing in the front yard and was completely oblivious.

"And I was standing behind her just laughing, honestly, and just knowing what was about to happen. And then everybody kind of came up and they stopped. And from the house, she was like, 'Oh, I think I know that guy.' And I was like, 'I think you know everybody who's here.'"

Carpe Diem and Earl's Grocery owner Bonnie Warford proposes to partner Emily Plauché.

In a video from one of their friends, the group stops in front of their home and you can see Plauché start to realize something’s up.

Looking at the crowd, Warford says, "Emily, they’re here to celebrate our love."

She gets down on one knee and presents the ring. Cheers erupt. Near the big, beaded Mardi Gras tree, the couple hugs, Emily says yes, the music starts back up and the party continues.

"I did ask Emily after I did it, I said, 'I hope you're not upset with me for — you know, normally a proposal would be so intimate — like for having it in front of so many people,'" Warford said. "And she said, 'No, it was perfect. Like, it was so me. Like, just everything I love about Mardi Gras and friends and family. And so, it's kind of perfect.'"

Sometimes resiliency is knowing when to stop. It’s feeling proud of a 30 year-old business and knowing if you keep pushing, you won’t be able to stay afloat. It’s knowing it's time to move on to other ventures.

And sometimes resiliency is taking a step into the future. Allowing yourself to feel the good, to have something to look forward to.

Sometimes it’s about seizing the day and holding loss in one hand, and love in the other.

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Sarah Delia covers criminal justice and the arts for WFAE. Sarah joined the WFAE news team in 2014. An Edward R. Murrow Award-winning journalist, Sarah has lived and told stories from Maine, New York, Indiana, Alabama, Virginia and North Carolina. Sarah received her B.A. in English and Art history from James Madison University, where she began her broadcast career at college radio station WXJM. Sarah has interned and worked at NPR in Washington DC, interned and freelanced for WNYC, and attended the Salt Institute for Radio Documentary Studies.