Submitted by Melissa Howsam — Correspondent
We don't know how to put this, but Gaurav "G" Patel is kind of a big deal, and we're gonna tell you why.
A pioneer of the Raleigh foodscape, the 26-year-old Eschelon Hospitality president - think: Mura, Sono and The Oxford - isn't just dishing up sushi and shepherd's pie, he's using his entrepreneurial prowess to pay it forward.
From the depths of childhood poverty in India to the top of the Raleigh food chain, Patel surfaced on the N.C. scene at the age of 10 in Morehead City, before then making his way inland to Raleigh in 2001 at 17. As a graduate of N.C. State's business marketing program, Patel's rise stems from a love of working events at local bars in college, which spawned a post-grad '05 business venture as the man behind Hillsborough Street college hot spot Maanjri Lounge-turned-Pi Bar, before selling. With his wife, Julie, as his muse, the transition to Mura and the bounty that followed surfaced from her love of sushi. "I don't even eat sushi,"he says. "It's not that I don't like it. I just never had it growing up. But my wife's all about it. We actually got started in the sushi business because we loved Mura when it first opened and frequented it." That loyal liking merged with an opportunity to purchase the nascent nip spot from which the ensuing Eschelon brand was essentially born.
After acquiring Mura in '06, Patel melded minds with then-chef Mike Lee - combining Lee's culinary chops with Patel's biz savvy and week-long Manhattan fieldwork - to conceptualize and open downtown sister store Sono in February '07. A sleek sip-and-nip sushi spot, Sono caters to both locals and the globetrotters who frequent the convention center and neighboring Marriott, merging a big-city feel with a spot-next-door vibe. That vibe epitomizes what makes Patel's ventures so successful, the notion that everyone is welcome and where the "great service" they offer is focused on an at-home feel. And it's working. But he'll tell you he didn't do it alone.
"Our success comes from our great team," he says. "We all just come together and put our specialties together. We build it the way we think it's right: 'How would we want to feel?' When you're there, we want you to feel like you belong. Everything just happens on its own, and everyone is welcome. You can go in shorts or a tie and it just fits. It's a feeling."
Enter The Oxford, Raleigh's first gastropub - a "public house" that emphasizes finer fare over prosaic "pub grub" - in October '08. Inspired by Patel's studies abroad in England, The Oxford is a trendy and versatile Fayetteville Street nosh spot that's true to form, fit for suits, Sperrys, Chucks or flops, a business brunch or a Friday-night swill.
To house his burgeoning brand, Patel conceptualized and opened Eschelon Hospitality last year, which will yield at least two additional concepts later this year. Between the two, wardrobe palettes will be dressed up and palates will be sated when a chic men's boutique and a hip Glenwood South haunt open. First up is Dapper Style House, a sip-n-shop men's boutique serving up snazzy with a sidecar of martinis and local lagers, set to dole duds in The Dawson by September. Then comes Clockwork, a retro Kubrick-ian "Clockwork Orange" concept bar, etched for Glenwood South this fall. And so, Patel's, and by extension Eschelon's, vision is far from realized. And for a city unaware of its own potential, this power-player will definitely take a turn in defining its future. "All of those places that are in bigger cities, I want to bring that to Raleigh," he says. "So even when you're not in that part of the world, when you go to our venues, you feel like you kind of stepped out of Raleigh for a bit."
And instead of simply taking it all in, he's giving back. Born into poverty, this budding-businessman now intends to have a heavy hand in paying it forward, because, he says, "you should. If you have it, give it." And so he does. From post-quake construction initiatives in Haiti, to putting the "fun" in local fundraisers, to looking forward to establishing education-based philanthropic initiatives in his native India, Patel and his Eschelon team are blazing the global giving trail.
"We want to concentrate local, but we also want to have a couple international charities that we help," he says. So, from raising a cool $16,000 in a one-day Hope for Haiti event to a frequent Susan G. Komen partnership, including last year's convention center kickoff to Strut '09, to a myriad of crosstown charitable efforts, that vision is coming to fruition. And to foster the local give, this summer sees five Mura-hosted theme parties that dish dollars and hold silent auctions for partnered charities - Dress for Success, Children's Flight for Hope and Interact - while giving denizens grounds to cut loose and do good. On August 5, don a black tie for Naked Sushi - a traditional Nyotaimori, where you nibble sushi from banana-leaf-bikini'd sushi models. Don't worry, it's totes sanitary. For the timid, there will also be model-free food tables. [$5 admission; $10 admission + food; cash bar.]
So, for a guy who doesn't even eat sushi, to sell the heck out of it in a bum economy, there's surely nothing he can't do. And he's doing it all and we're all eating it up, literally.