Eschelon bucks restaurant trend

Planned two-story Asian eatery highlights company's latest expansion

dbracken@newsobserver.comOctober 16, 2011 

— As the 27-year-old owner of four Raleigh restaurants, it's hard to tell which part of G Patel's resume is more impressive.

That he's managed to amass a stable of profitable businesses at such a young age, or that he's done most of it during one of the worst economic downturns in recent memory.

Over the last five years, Patel's company, Eschelon Hospitality, has steadily expanded its Raleigh footprint while many other restaurant owners have scaled back or gone under.

That footprint is largest downtown, where Eschelon is creating its own mini entertainment district in the 300 block of Fayetteville Street.

Having already opened the sushi restaurant Sono and The Oxford, a Gastro pub, Patel is now making his boldest move yet.

He is spending more than $800,000 to turn a ground floor retail space in the RBC Plaza building into a two-story new Asian restaurant called Zinda.

When it opens sometime early next year, Eschelon will have three restaurants side-by-side along the city's marque drag.

"The beauty of our company is the locations we've chosen," said Patel, whose birth name is Gaurav but who just goes by G. "I was growing when the economy was just plummeting. Everybody has to eat. People still have expendable income."

Eschelon's other two restaurants are in equally well-trafficked locations: The sushi restaurant Mura in North Hills and Cameron Bar and Grill in the Cameron Village shopping center, which Eschelon bought this summer.

Patel's discipline and ability to execute in a notoriously risky industry has drawn notice from his peers.

"It seems like he's got a pretty good pulse on what the market needs and doing things differently than others," said Dean Ogan, owner of Rocky Top Hospitality, which operates the Tribeca Tavern restaurants in Cary and North Raleigh, and Draft on Glenwood South. "He's not just opening up sports bars all over the place. He opens up things that are kind of unique and different to the area ... he's creative and he's a good operator."

Patel will never be confused with Ashley Christensen, the award-winning Raleigh chef who recently opened three establishments on Wilmington Street in downtown Raleigh.

"I'm not really much of a foodie," he admits. "But I like business."

Patel is a numbers guy who has his restaurant managers' text him the sales figures at the end of each night so he can review them before he goes to bed. During the day he drops by each of his restaurants to check on reservation levels and to make sure nothing is amiss.

Something as little as a crooked sign in a window bothers him.

Patel began making a name for himself in Raleigh during his undergraduate years at N.C. State University. He formed a company, Cloud 9 Entertainment, that handled the door and brought in customers for nightclubs such as Club Envy for a cut of the admission.

"For a college kid that was awesome," he said. "To be able to walk away with a bag full of money at the end of the night."

After graduating in 2005 with a marketing degree, Patel opened the Maanjri Lounge, a hooka bar, on Hillsborough Street.

He personally raised $70,000 for the venture from friends and family, mostly Indians in the hotel industry, and secured another $80,000 from outside investors.

Patel was born in the state of Gujarat in India. His family moved to Morehead City in 1993, where his uncle owned a 20-room hotel. Patel grew up working in hotels that his parents managed.

When it came time to open his own place, Patel chose a hooka bar because he noticed that the concept was slowly making its way east from the West Coast.

But after eight months he realized it wasn't going to work.

"It did OK in the beginning," he said. "But you couldn't do volume. You had patrons sitting for an hour."

Patel decided to turn the lounge into a nightclub called Pi Bar, which did well enough that was able to sell it three years later and pay off his investors.

His next project was supposed to be in Glenwood South, where Patel planned to buy the location then occupied by The Hard Times.

With backing from various investors, Patel secured a $1.2 million loan for the project. But the deal fell through after the loan closed.

Shortly thereafter the owners of Mura announced they were looking to sell and Patel pounced.

Using a formula that he would later repeat, Patel simplified things and made Mura a more happening place, not just a place to dine. Some of Eschelon's restaurants, notably The Oxford, are known as much for their late-night social scene as they are for anything on the menu.

Eschelon acts as its own marketing firm. It has built up a database of customers that it keeps in touch with regularly through social networking.

Patel attributes much of Eschelon's success to the team of people he's build around him. The company now employs nearly 200 people. That team allows Patel and his wife, Julie, to travel frequently to places like Turkey and India.

Patel's lack of expertise in the kitchen means he relies on his chefs for guidance with the menus. He partnered with Mike Lee, the former sushi chef at Mura, to open Sono.

Patel pays close attention to trends in the restaurant industry, looking for new concepts that are gaining in popularity elsewhere. That helps explain Dapper House Style, a small bar and fashion boutique that Eschelon opened downtown on Morgan Street in September 2010.

The concept has struggled to catch on in Raleigh, but Patel said he's willing to give it time.

Zinda, the new Asian restaurant planned for RBC Plaza, is another concept on the rise. The Cheesecake Factory, among other major restaurant chains, has opened a restaurant with a similar concept.

RBC Plaza's owner, Highwoods Properties, passed on a number of other concepts before going with Eschelon and Zinda.

"G is a proven and successful restaurateur. He has proven he knows the business, and we have a lot of confidence in him," said Tabitha Zane, Highwoods' vice president of investor relations.

As for what's next after Zinda, Patel is interested in getting into real estate development and possibly expanding into Durham.

"I've looked at that market quite a bit," he said.

For now, though, he's sticking with the formula that's gotten him this far.

"I'm not on the outskirts," he said. "Nothing catastrophic is going to happen in North Hills or downtown."

Bracken: 919-829-4548

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