By Chris Mohney
All Zagat Stories are written by our editorial team. This story is presented by our partner Chase Sapphire®.
Through the difficulties of the past year, restaurants have been there for their communities. They’ve pivoted to takeout, provided meals to essential workers, and so much more. The Sapphire Supports Restaurants Contest is awarding $50,000 business grants from Chase Sapphire to 20 small-business restaurants across America to provide COVID-19 pandemic recovery assistance. Zagat Stories is featuring interviews with all of our Sapphire Supports Restaurants Contests grant recipients.
Dr. Dhaval Patel is the owner and proprietor of Uncommon Market in Beeville, Texas, which includes the operations of Coffee Barrel, Uncommon Table, and Atomic Bakery.
Before the pandemic lockdown, we were rocking and rolling. We were scaling up. We were having a good time. We were carrying out our community vision. Our motto here is hand-in-hand with community and the business side under one model, not either-or.
We’re a bit of an outlier, in part because of my background in public health and community medicine. I’ve been all over the world and have worked in developing countries during the peak of the HIV/AIDS crisis, SARS, Ebola—stuff like that. I already knew before any lockdown started happening across the nation what was going to happen. In December 2019, I realized that I needed to close down our shop inside in order to protect our community and to protect my team members. It did not stop any of the community programs, and it did not stop any of the business side for the restaurant-food-beverage stuff. We just had to change. We agreed as a team that we were going to change the dynamic.
So we closed the doors. At that point, a lot of the other businesses were not prepared or set up for it. We were going to fill that void for the community. Our drive-through business expanded exponentially. You could already pick up curbside, and we did more of that. We did slow down our call-and-we’ll-drop-it-off delivery service because I didn’t want my team members out there getting exposed to stuff.
Another major thing that happened was that there were tremendous shortages in our community, as there were across the nation. We then tried to be creative and innovative about what we could provide the community in terms of raw products. Eggs became a real issue around here, and milk became a real issue. Particularly with the type of people that we serve. Kids are really important to us.
So we teamed up with a couple of people and found 12,000 dozen eggs from Missouri through a local partnership that I have. I told one of our friends to get a U-Haul through the Amish community, go pick them up, and come back down here. I didn’t care what they charged. We were going to pay them exactly what the cost was, and people could come and buy eggs. So we became this gray market for eggs and other products. People would come to us and ask, “Do you have extra toilet paper? Do you have extra toothpaste? Do you have extra this and that?” If we had it, I would sell it to them at cost. If it cost two bucks, I would sell it to you for two bucks.
Initially, we were viewed very negatively by other colleagues that had businesses. Being down here in Texas, even during lockdown, everything’s been open compared to New York City or Chicago. It was kind of lax. My business-owner friends and other entrepreneurs and other individuals said, “You’re making us look bad, Dhaval.” And I said, “Well, that’s not my problem. My problem is to protect our community, first and foremost. Working all over the world in health crises like this, I know what’s going to happen. I need to get ahead of the curve.”
But our community—I call them our “uncommon family members” because they are family to us, and they treat us that way as well—they saw it as a very positive thing because they could still get food and beverages. Our community programs kept working and expanding. We didn’t have to lay anybody off. We didn’t close the doors at all. We didn’t change our hours. And they saw us as a safety net, because they couldn’t go to other places, but they could come to us. They knew that we were following all the protocols that, as an expert in the field, I knew we needed.
One of our first community programs—we’ve got 12—was a large-scale community garden that supplies a lot of the produce we use for our meals. That comes with educational and sustainability programs. I had to stop that, because I didn’t want kids over here with parents and teachers, regardless of what the school systems were doing. I partner with them, and I don’t want to put them at risk. On the flip side, we scaled up our virtual cooking lessons. We would do free lessons through the drive-through or in the back.
Our school sustainability program on Tuesdays and Thursdays is back up and running. It’s more or less 90 percent outside, 10 percent inside. Our common table lunch and brunch that we do on Fridays and Saturdays—that’s food from around the world in a sustainable way—I’d love to be able to do that every single day.
I didn’t have to lay anybody off. I didn’t have to furlough anybody. I never had to ask any government agency—federal, state, or local—for any PPP money. I could never show a loss from the previous quarters to apply for any of those. So I didn’t close down. Well, the flip side of that is that a lot of the employee base around here—not just for us—they quit. They picked up and left, which made it very difficult to offer a wonderful, fresh, healthy kind of meal at a very affordable cost.
I’d love to be able to do 20 community programs with twice the number of beneficiaries, because people are itching for that. Our school program with the kids, I capped it on Tuesdays and Thursdays only because of safety reasons, even though it’s outdoors. I just don’t want to take the risk yet because there’s still so much back-and-forth data about kids and vaccinations and safety. Instead of having 40 kids on Tuesdays and Thursdays, I would love to have 100. We’ve got another program coming up in December—an educator’s workshop. It’s capped at 40 because of safety. I’d love to be able to scale up some of these programs, but COVID is putting a damper on that. But it’s better than not having them at all.
We as a family, and as a team, are big global travelers. The premise of part of our food and beverage offering—because it is uncommon for our area in South Texas—comes from me and my wife and son having traveled to and lived in Africa, Asia, and Europe. I’ve been to 90 countries personally. As soon as the pandemic hit, we stopped traveling. When you’re traveling, you learn from people, you interact with people, you experience their culture. That’s not happening right now. I’d love to get back into the groove of doing that again and be able to bring new ideas back into our community.
My attitude toward our community is that you’re part of our family. I will get to know every single person by name and who they are. We’re not a fast food place. We’re not a big chain restaurant. We’re not an awesome restaurant that’s just a business transaction for people. We know people because we built that relationship with the community from day one. That helped us because they saw us, and they helped us out.