By William Fox
It’s midday on a Wednesday. But the days are all blurring together now.
Day 16 of who-knows-how-many.
Most lights are off at The Commons Market as lunch hour approaches. Gates are shut or partially closed. Empty chairs surround long dining tables. Wood-framed wire awnings are down and latched. It looks closed and empty.
But it’s not.
Follow the aroma of freshly roasted beans into the roasting room at Methodical Coffee. Bags of Belly Warmer, Blue Boy and Pink Lady line a worktable. Steve Naylor fills two-pound bags at a machine that makes a swooshing sound with each cascade of beans.
Zach McCutchen is out front brewing cups of coffee between running orders outside to waiting customers like Elizabeth Kabakjian. She often came to Methodical during work breaks at Dapper Ink not far away. She still does, only now she orders ahead and picks it up out front.
Today is sunny and warm. In the distance, a construction flagman directs traffic around the backhoes ripping up Welborn Street to lay a new sewer line. Duke Energy crews bury utility lines around the corner on Hudson Street. The Commons is in the center of what will one day become Greenville’s 60-acre Unity Park.
The Commons is the dream of an imaginative group of three entrepreneurs who trained together at the Caine Halter Family YMCA – Rion Smith, co-owner and president of Outdoor Sports Marketing; Drew Parker, owner and broker-in-charge of the Parker Group; and Ray Foral co-owner of Ridgeline Construction.
While each had their own business, they shared a common vision.
“Could we run our businesses here, and could we attract other local talent, other entrepreneurs that have grown their businesses here in Greenville and highlight them together?” they asked. “What kind of community could we create where we could speak to community engagement and healthy pursuits?”
They found that place in 40,000 square feet of raw warehouse space built after the war along the banks of the Reedy River.
Soon the three moved in their companies and attracted others like Billiam Jeans, Carolina Triathlon, X Agency, Yield, GruffyGoat, Photoelectric and Project Plus. In November 2019, The Commons Market opened with Golden Brown & Delicious, Methodical Coffee, the Bake Room, Automatic Taco and Community Tap’s Trailside location.
Randy McDougald, owner of Carolina Triathlon inside The Commons, says his business is “sustaining,” as customers look for ways to get fresh air and exercise at a time they can’t go to the gym or attend spin class. “People are wanting to get outside and be active, and we’re helping them fulfill that,” he says.
The work has kept his employees busy, and McDougald says he has no plans to cut back hours for the time being “regardless of what happens.”
“We are doing takeout from next door because we know they are suffering a little bit,” he says. “So, we’re trying to do what we can to help support them during this time of need to keep their businesses going.”
Greer Quinn works at Ridgeline Construction in The Commons and says he and his co-workers are doing the same. While many in his office are working remotely from home or at job sites, he says the construction business has remained strong. “We’re carrying on for now,” he says.
Quinn served as project manager when The Commons Market was under construction last year. He’s waiting for his lunch order after walking over from his office in The Commons.
“It’s sad seeing this place through to completion back in November and now, given this time of year, anticipating the back deck being packed with people drinking beer…” says Quinn, his voice trailing off.
It’s not what the owners of The Commons were envisioning, either. Not two months after some restaurants in the Market posted their best-ever January business numbers.
They knew Unity Park construction was coming. And that it would disrupt traffic and parking. But they weren’t expecting this. Companies struggling to stay afloat. Offices sending employees to work from home. Restaurants fighting for their very survival.
But then, who expected any of this?
In some ways, the strength of The Commons suddenly became its vulnerability. A business built to create a community around fellowship and food faces a reckoning when a global pandemic forces everyone to keep their distance and stay home.
The businesses gathered on March 15.
“The reason we built The Commons was for people to come together and enjoy themselves and enjoy those local brands that are grown here in Greenville,” says Smith.
“But what if that was something that could hurt people in our community – friends and family that we worked with. We wanted to make sure we did the right thing before we were told what to do,” says Smith, whose outdoor sports sales and marketing agency is also feeling the impact.
“We’re doing everything we can to keep our team together,” he says, noting a rash of canceled spring orders. “It’s a challenge right now.”
The Commons made the announcement on Instagram the next day. The Market would close to inside dining effective immediately. The following weekend, after patrons stood bunched closely together in lines waiting for their orders, they made the decision to limit operations to curbside service.
And then, using the strength and innovation of what brought them together, they began working collectively to find solutions.
They talked about their challenges, exchanged ideas, and openly and candidly shared their daily revenue figures. They brainstormed new ways to reach customers and collaborate.
The shift to curbside service wasn’t easy. None had online ordering in place. They bought dedicated cellphones to take orders. They made menus and inventory accessible online. GruffyGoat, a web design and development firm, kept The Commons website updated as business hours, menus and ordering options changed daily. Rio Oshiro, an employee at Outdoor Sports Marketing, posted the updates to social media.
As Methodical Coffee saw sales swing from wholesale to retail, they repurposed wholesale delivery vans for home delivery. They reached out to farmers and other providers offering home delivery of their eggs, milk, bacon and sausage.
“It’s less about a way for us to make a profit, and more of a way for us to be able to support them, keep our employees and do something for our community,” says co-owner Marco Suarez.
Methodical is launching virtual home barista classes covering topics from basic coffee brewing to dialing in your beans, palette development, latte art and roasting.
Community Tap started virtual tastings in which they pair a meal with the perfect beer or wine at an accessible price. Co-owner Ed Buffington describes how customers log into Facebook or Instagram to share in a communal meal, learn about the pairing and ask questions.
“The main goal is to bring people together around food. So, if we can’t do that, what are we doing?” says Alex George, owner of Golden Brown & Delicious. “I have had to change my way of thinking.”
Smith says stronger businesses can emerge “if you already have great relationships and you’re embedded and you’re local and you’re serving the community, and then through something like this you’re able to add more ways to connect to the community and serve them.
“We were just getting to where we could have the kind of impact we imagined and envisioned,” he says. “Not only enjoying it and promoting healthy, active pursuits and bringing people together around good food and good ideas and good work but bringing the rest of the community in with us. That’s what we will get back to. It won’t be long.”
The Commons at a Glance:
Square footage: 40,000
Owners: The Commons is the dream of an imaginative group of three entrepreneurs who trained together at the Caine Halter Family YMCA – Rion Smith, co-owner and president of Outdoor Sports Marketing; Drew Parker, owner and broker-in-charge of the Parker Group; and Ray Foral, co-owner of Ridgeline Construction.