Uptown & The Pinch

Soup, sandwich and a side of community at The Office @ Uptown cafe

There aren’t too many places in town where you can have lunch with multiple mayors, a Hollywood director, the heads of nationally recognized institutions, a former bodyguard for Three 6 Mafia, international tourists, and a dozen other interesting characters at the same time.

The Office @ Uptown isn’t most places.

Former Memphis mayors Willie Herenton and A.C. Wharton and current mayor Jim Strickland are regular customers to this Uptown cafe, as are St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital CEO Richard Shadyac, Jr. and his brother, director Tom Shadyac, but the majority of guests are neighborhood folks who’ve become more like family than customers.
 

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“We have different people coming in — different ages, races, sexes, from Memphis and outside of Memphis. They come in and it becomes a community. People forge friendships. Business relationships have been birthed from here,” said Valerie Peavy, co-owner of The Office.

And they’re here for more than just food. The Office is a multipurpose space.

“We wanted it to be a place to work, learn, and dine,” said Peavy.

Open Monday through Friday from 7 a.m. until 4 p.m., it offers breakfast and lunch at the cafe; on-demand office equipment like desk space, computers, fax, printers, and scanners; and a casual space with good music and a bright, colorful decor for hangouts and meetings.

Since their launch in 2013, The Office has hosted book signings, tax preparation classes, pre-K teaching certification classes, pop-up holiday markets, art exhibits, a free library and countless neighborhood meetings.

The Office @ Uptown is located at 594 North Second Street and is open Monday through Friday from 7 a.m. until 4 p.m. (Brandon Dahlberg)

“There’s a sense of community that I think has been forged in the last five years where people genuinely feel a sense of warmth coming in,” said Peavy.

“We love our customers. They’re very diverse, and the diversity is what gives it the feel that it does,” added LaWandra Williams, who worked previously for 20 years at Peavy's IT consultation business. She's been with The Office since its inception as a front-of-house employee. 

In 2010, Valerie Peavy and her husband, Jeff Harrison, were looking for office space to launch a new venture. She previously owned an IT firm, and he owned a security and locksmithing company.

“We were just going to have an office space and figure out what we were going to do with the rest of our lives,” said Valerie Peavy.

The couple lives in Harbortown and knew they wanted to stay in the Downtown area, but they weren’t interested in the Downtown core or its southern portions. In May 2011 they purchased the building at 594 North Second Street in the Uptown neighborhood and began renovating it into what they thought would be a personal office. 

As they built their space, they saw an opportunity to be a neighborhood asset.

Related: "Welcome to Uptown, the biggest small town in Memphis"
 

“On this side of town at that time, there wasn’t a sit-down place to get soup, salad, and sandwiches,” said Peavy.

Although they recognized the need, the Peavys had never owned a restaurant. Luckily, they had a strong network of support to help them launch. A friend first introduced them to a food distributor. The distributor, in turn, introduced them to a distribution representative whose manager was once in the restaurant business and knew a chef interested in a new project.

Chef Rodney Shelton helped work out the menu, and they came up with a name and logo that communicated all of the different facets of the business —  a coffee cup for the cafe, the wifi symbol and ‘The Office’ for the business amenities, ‘@ Uptown’ to signify that this was a place for the neighborhood.

“It’s Memphis. It’s the grittiness, it’s the don’t give up of Memphis, it’s everyone forging forward to make this a better community."

Williams admits she was concerned for the success of a restaurant in the South and in a predominantly-Black neighborhood that didn’t serve meat-and-three style home cooking or anything fried, but Peavy wanted healthier fair that stood out from other neighborhood options. 

And while it wasn’t completely free of challenges, their experience was overall positive.

“We grew organically because I believe this is really what God wanted us to do,” said Peavy of the ease at which they launched and their success since.

Even what could have been a devastating blow was a sign they were on the right path. Shortly after opening, Peavy was diagnosed with cancer and sidelined for six months of treatment. It was a scary time both personally and professionally for such a hands-on business owner, but her fears soon proved unfounded.

“I was still doing paperwork from home, and I could see the numbers. On the very first day of my chemo treatment, for that year that was the best day we had,” said Peavy. 

“We benefited from being here at the right place, the right time, and the right people. I have a great staff,” she continued.

One special member of the crew is a shining example of The Office's role as a builder of relationships and community.

The Office officially opened on April 1, 2013. The very first customer was Barbara Edmond.
Barbara Edmond is a beloved member of The Office's crew. Here she received a rose from a customer on Valentines Day. (Submitted)
When Edmond retired from the medical field in 2014, she started spending more time at home.

“After I retired, I was going out but not as much. I’d go out and do things one day, then rest for two days,” she said.

The Office staff was concerned about their star customer staying agile, so they asked her to help out with a catering job for then-Mayor A.C. Wharton. 

Then came more catering gigs and an offer to work as a greeter. Edmond didn’t want to be an employee because she liked setting her own schedule. She volunteers once a week and visits the cafe four to five times a week.

Peavy hopes that everyone who walks into the office feels a similar deep connection to the space and to the people. She also hopes that the business continues to grow as the neighborhood around it expands.

The $13 million Uptown Flats apartment development two blocks away from the cafe on Main Street should give them a brand new customer base. The Peavy's recently purchased a lot next door to the cafe on Second Street to hold a future expansion.

There are still some neighbors who don’t know about The Office, but word is spreading.

“When people come, when they come back the next time they bring a friend, and then that friend brings another friend,” said Edmond.

“That’s where the bulk of our business came from. We didn’t do a ton of advertising,” added Williams.

When they do find The Office, they’ll be greeted by friendly staff and a community of patrons who come from across the city but still feel like neighbors and friends. 

Peavy explains that it isn’t magic, it’s just Memphis meeting its full potential. All they had to do was build the right environment.

“It’s Memphis. It’s the grittiness, it’s the don’t give up of Memphis, it’s everyone forging forward to make this a better community.

I remember one day I stood up and looked out and the place was filled with people coming and going and music, and I looked out there and saw everybody – every age, every race, every demographic – represented. It was a beautiful thing. It really showed Memphis the way I see Memphis and the way I know Memphis can be without all the division.”  

Read more articles by Cole Bradley.

Cole Bradley is a native Memphian and applied anthropologist. Since 2011, Cole has worked as a researcher, strategist, and community engagement specialist across the city's private, public, and non-profit sectors. Passionate about storytelling, they began contributing to High Ground News in 2017.
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