He started in 1989 as a server, worked his way up to general manager and, except for a few years living and working in Georgia while his wife went to veterinary school, continued in that role until he bought the restaurant 14 years ago.
“I’ve been the owner longer than I’ve done anything at the restaurant,” Wales says.
As Wales prepares to celebrate the restaurant’s 25 years as a standard-bearer of fine dining in Columbia, he talked a little about the past and what’s on tap for the future.
Motor Supply got its name in a most unusual way. It was originally set to be the Vista Cafe, but the discovery of an old neon sign in the basement of the building that once housed an automotive supply shop changed all that.
“That sign, that big, giant sign, was stuffed in the basement down here and it was such a unique piece of craftsmanship that they decided to refurbish it and put new neon on there, and that’s why the name was changed — because of that sign,” Wales says.
The Motor Supply Co. was reborn decades after it had stopped being part of a regional chain of auto supply shops. The building, originally completed in the late 1800s to be a grocery store, returned to its roots.
Present and future
The restaurant still hangs on to some of its original effects: a hand-written menu that changes twice a day based on fresh ingredients from local farmers and its big beautiful bar (more on that later).
But some things have been upgraded to accommodate what Wales says is an increased sophistication in his clientele.
The outdoor dining area has been fully enclosed with large glass garage doors that can open in temperate weather and is comfortably heated and cooled. It also offers the space to handle larger parties without disrupting the main dining room.
“When we’re full and maxed out, which is a lot of the time now, we can seat more people and handle more customers with our larger tables outside,” Wales says. “Since renovating the patio, we have set sales records on several nights.”
The growing business is a happy “problem,” Wales says, though some of his regulars aren’t used to having to make reservations.
“We take reservations for parties of six or more for lunch, and for all parties for dinner. Since we are busier now than ever, I always recommend reservations at dinner,” Wales says. “It’s a good problem to have.”
New chef Wesley Fulmer is putting his touch on Southern fare and using as much locally provided produce and meats as possible.
“I firmly believe in seasons and seasonality,” Fulmer says. “When I was in culinary school, it was a big thing to find your groove, and professors were just pushing you to find your own style. They ask me, ‘Wes, what’s your style?’ And I was like, ‘I think I’m just going to reinvent everything that I think is good.’ I don’t mean that in an egotistical way. Sure, I’ll make mac and cheese, but I want to see what kind of ingredients I have to work with before I know what kind.”
Wales is on board with that plan.
“We are always trying new local products,” Wales says. “What we’re starting to see, and we’re making the move toward, is more grass-fed beef. And there are more local farmers doing that than in the past.
“The charcuterie program that Chef Wes has continued from what we had before is another thing folks should look for. He’s adding more Italian cured meats like salumi to the charcuterie board.
“We are looking to get to the point where 100 percent of our produce is local. If it can be grown in South Carolina, we’re going to get ahold of it and have it here.”
One thing that will never change about Motor Supply is the bar. As cocktails have become more complicated, using ingredients like elderflower liqueurs and muddled mint, Motor Supply has kept up with offerings of seasonal and new-old offerings. But the bar itself is still the same beautiful carved-wood and marble creation it has always been. Its story has just been edited — tweaked really — just a little.
“The bar was purchased from Aiken Antiques, which was down in Five Points forever,” Wales says. “After the store closed, we relied on rumors of its origins, so we could never find out exactly where the bar came from. For years, it was thought to have come from Austria. The name on the bar is Germania Hotel.
“We had some misinformation for years, but we found out the Germania Hotel was an old resort on the Jersey Shore. That’s where this very beautiful and very ornate bar came from.”
Now, it keeps folks happy in the heart of the South.
Motor Supply Co. Bistro is located at 920 Gervais St., Columbia. Reservations can be made by calling 803.256.6687 or visiting motorsupplycobistro.com.