NCtrend: Hunger gains

 In 2015-08

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by Cameron Walker

Twenty-two years ago, Gaurav Patel’s family immigrated to Morehead City from India, joining an uncle who owned a small hotel in the coastal city. A generation later, with a bachelor’s degree in marketing from N.C. State University under his belt, he’s become one of the Triangle’s more successful restaurateurs, selling sushi, steak au poivre, shepherd’s pie and other dishes in six restaurants. Patel’s business, Eschelon Experiences, now employs more than 300 people and grosses an estimated $10 million a year. (He declines to be specific.)

He started at age 20 with Maanjri Lounge, a bar near N.C. State University that he bought with about $170,000 borrowed from 20 family members. Patel, who goes by “G,” paid back his investors and sold the bar for a profit two years later. In 2006, he bought North Hills sushi spot Mura and has since added five more venues. Two are in Raleigh’s Cameron Village: midcentury modern-style surf-and-turf restaurant Faire and classic American restaurant Cameron Bar and Grill. Two more are in downtown Raleigh: upscale British pub The Oxford and “new Asian” restaurant and nightclub Zinda. In downtown Durham, he runs another sushi restaurant called Basan.

Patel, now 32, focuses on leasing prime sites in trendy areas popular with millennials. “We’re very particular on location. I think that’s one of the main drivers, the creators of our success,” he says. After his team chooses a venue, they research which restaurant concept will attract potential customers. Their goal is to fill a void in the market rather than compete with other businesses.

Attention to detail is also a key part of Eschelon’s growth, says Patel, whose first hospitality job was cleaning rooms at his uncle’s hotel. “It’s important to me to be meticulous,” he says. “That small detail is what could differentiate between someone having a good experience and someone having an exceptional experience.” Just before Faire’s opening, Patel spotted a blank area on a wall and launched an extensive search for the right painting to fill the space, says Katie Hanslits, his executive assistant. “No one would have ever noticed,” she says, but that wasn’t good enough for Patel.

Creating a venerable business requires teamwork, and Patel says he has to balance any desire to micromanage with trust in his colleagues to make decisions that align with his company’s values. “Training people well and allowing them the autonomy to make decisions independently” results in a loyal team, he says.

Now, Eschelon’s challenge is to stay relevant by consistently rebranding and repositioning as food trends change. Future plans include a restaurant in downtown Raleigh’s Charter Square building, which opened in June.

Patel’s success has caught the eye of other Triangle entrepreneurs. He’s among 80 or so investors and an advisory board member of Cofounders Capital Fund LP, a Cary-based venture group organized this year by David Gardner. The fund is raising $12 million, which will back Triangle-area business-software startups.

“G really likes helping young entrepreneurs and always seems to have time for them no matter how busy he is,” says Gardner, who has started and sold several tech companies. “He was eager to be involved in Cofounders Capital and the company’s mentoring lab in Cary because he said he wanted to increase his involvement in local startups. G is a real catalyst in the community.”

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