A look at one of South Carolina’s up-and-coming restaurants … and how it adapted its menu, business model to survive Covid-19.

South Carolina small businessman Levi Whitlock launched his new restaurant Palate on February 8, 2020 to rave reviews and packed tables. Located in the hip State Street district of West Columbia, S.C. – just across the Congaree River from downtown Columbia – business was booming during Palate’s first six weeks on the Midlands restaurant scene.

Little could Whitlock (or anyone) know what was lurking just around the corner, though …

On March 15, 2020, the bottom fell out of American economy as the coronavirus pandemic and its subsequent societal shutdowns caused unprecedented economic carnage all across the nation.

Among those hardest hit by the decline? Restaurant owners …

Just weeks after opening its doors, Palate was forced to close them temporarily due to a dramatic decline in sales.

Facing a potentially ruinous situation, Whitlock knew he needed to adapt – and fast. That’s when he launched “Street Eats,” an entirely re-conceptualized menu of comfort foods aimed at satisfying the demands of the takeout/ delivery market that quickly exploded in the wake of the pandemic.

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(Via: Provided)

Using fresh, homemade ingredients – including foods grown in his home garden – Whitlock whipped up innovative takes on several Southern/ Asian staples of the “speed of service” food market. Everything on the menu is made-from-scratch and made-to-order … right down to the sauces.

The end result? Addictive, inexpensive fare that is winning converts all over the Midlands region of the state …

“I introduced it to the guy I’m dating and he took one bite and was in love,” one Palate regular told us. “He’s adding it to his rotation.”

And that’s exactly how Palate is expanding its footprint …

We sat down with Whitlock this month to learn more about how he started his business – and how he has navigated the tumultuous terrain of the Covid-19 economy. Here is our conversation …

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FITS: First of all, tell our readers a little bit about yourself …

LEVI: My name is LiVente Whitlock.  I was born in Rock Hill, S.C. I am 36 years old and the oldest of four.  My mother has been an entrepreneur for thirty-plus years.  I went to Johnson & Wales University and earned my associates in culinary arts and a bachelor’s degree in food service management.   I married my high school sweetheart and we have three amazing kids together.  My wife went to the University of South Carolina earning her music education degree.  We fell in love with the Columbia area and moved here after we got married.

FITS: How did you come to do what you are doing now?  Have you always been interested in cooking?

LEVI: I started cooking when I was 10 years old.  Being the oldest, I wanted to help my grandma in the kitchen.  She made from scratch items daily that fed myself and eight to nine kids on a daily basis.  This created my passion for feeding people. 

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(Via: Provided)

FITS: How did you perfect your craft? Did you have any mentors as you were working your way up in the business?

LEVI: I learned a lot from college, but I learned more from traveling and working in various types of restaurants – from Walt Disney World to Denali Alaska. I also worked under chef Marvin Woods in Atlanta, Georgia and Charlotte, N.C.

FITS: You take a lot of pride in your food – making all of your ingredients from scratch (including your sauces).  I also remember you telling me you take lots of time with your ingredients (marinades, etc.) to make sure they come out “just right.” Tell us why this attention to detail is so important – and how it sets your menu apart.

LEVI: I was always fascinated with food science and know how things work and how to get the maximum performance out of each ingredient. It comes from the respect for nature and the enjoyment of pleasing others.  You can taste the quality and passion in the food.

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(Via: Provided)

FITS: Let’s talk about your “Street Eats” menu. You mentioned to me that it was born out of necessity during the fallout from Covid-19. How did you come up with it? And how is it faring so far?

LEVI: Our “Street Eats” menu consists of Southern and Asian comfort foods – all natural, no antibiotic all white meat chicken nuggets tossed in your choice of over ten sauces, house-made macaroni and cheese, Teriyaki Chicken Skewers and Pork Belly Bao Buns to name a few.

We wanted to come up with a menu to satisfy that craving for good home-cooked food at an affordable price.  Prior to our “Street Eats” menu, we were offering neighborhood deliveries and takeout family meals.  Our new menu is helping us build a customer base.  We are thankful to all of our loyal supporters.  Many of our customers dine with us weekly if not twice a week.  We are also very thankful to have been added to the University of South Carolina’s Athletic Red Card Dining Plan – and to have done some catering for the Gamecock football team. 

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FITS: You’ve got a really artsy, upscale vibe to your interior … tell us a little bit about how you conceptualized Palate (both the food and the venue)?

LEVI: We wanted our space to be Instagram friendly and a cute date night spot. We also wanted our space to look completely different so when you walk in you feel like you walked into another city for a moment.  When we switched up our menu, we wanted to go with a quick-bite feel.  Many of our items are easy to share as well which makes the dining experience a bit playful.  

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(Via: Provided)

FITS: Who are some of the people who have helped you grow your business along the way? I know your wife, Lindsay, is very involved.  Who else has helped you?  And how have they helped?

LEVI: Our business partners were instrumental in getting everything started.  They have a passion and drive that is unmatched. They designed the space and put all the finishing touches on everything.  When opening up the restaurant, our opening crew consisted of my brother and my best friend from college, Jon.  Both of these men were instrumental in creating our original concept.   Jon and I worked on developing the menu together and bounced many ideas off each other.  The time spent with these men is time I will cherish forever.

FITS: Obviously, this has been a year unlike any other for all businesses.  Tell us a little bit about how Covid-19 has impacted your business – especially seeing as it opened just two weeks before the pandemic hit.  How have you adapted?  Do you have tips for other restaurants struggling in this economic climate?

LEVI: We opened February 8, 2020.  During the first thirty days were did great!  We were really excited about the direction our business had started in.   Shortly after that, we closed down the restaurant due to drastically decreased sales. During this shut down, we offered pre-ordered Family To Go Meals.  We also offered neighborhood deliveries to the surrounding area.  This has helped us to get the word out about our restaurant.  We know all businesses are struggling.  The key right now is persistence and patience. 

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(Via: Palate)

FITS: How active are you on social media?  What do you see as its primary benefits to restaurants?  Does it have drawbacks?  And do you have any social media tips for other small businesses?

LEVI: We are active on Facebook and Instagram.  Social Media has helped us get the word out about Palate.  It also allows customers to leave real time feedback.  This helps other potential dinners find us.  THANK YOU to all of our customers.  We are here because of your support!!!  

FITS: Anything else our readers need to know?

LEVI: The only thing I have ever done in my life is food and I don’t consider it a job its my life. I am blessed to be able to support my family through something I truly enjoy.  Life is all about kindness, be kind to others and things will change for the better.

(Click to view)

(Via: Palate)


NAME: Palate
INDUSTRY: Restaurant/ Food
OWNER/ OPERATOR: Levi Whitlock
FOUNDED: February, 2020
ADDRESS: 116 State Street, West Columbia, S.C. 29169
SOCIAL: Facebook/ Instagram

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