I first met Daniel in the fall of 2015 while walking through my neighborhood, on Person Street. He wasn’t yet a familiar face (at least to me) on the block, but something told me that the guy carrying loads of fresh produce into the newly opened The Pharmacy Café (TPC) was going to be a great addition to the neighborhood. Founded in 1910, Person Street Pharmacy & Café has been a landmark in Raleigh for as long as anyone living can remember. Known for its staples like the 10-cent popcorn machine and full service soda fountain, this was more than a pharmacy, it was a place of congregation. Since the beginning, the pharmacy consistently provided a sense of community for its family of customers. But like anything, change is inevitable. People move on, the neighborhood landscape shifts, and a new generation comes in to carry the torch. Daniel Whittaker, owner of TPC is now holding the torch with a strict understanding of the past and a bright vision for the future. We sat down with him for our latest installment of Raleigh Hustles Hard, to find out more about how The Pharmacy Café became home.
Daniel took over TPC in November of 2015. As a self-proclaimed “Navy brat”, he spent most of his childhood moving around without a real sense of community. He moved to North Carolina in the early 2000’s working for a while as a franchise developer for Rum Runners as well as at a series of restaurant jobs. As random as Daniel makes these jobs seem, I quickly understood their value in leading up to the present. As well as the owner of TPC, Daniel sits at the helm of Green Planet Catering, an award winning, sustainably run catering company he founded in 2007.
The Pharmacy Café reopened in June of 2015, under pharmacist and new owner, Trey Waters. Partnering with Chef Chad McIntyre from Market Restaurant, the new café promised to fill a much-needed void in the neighborhood, breakfast and lunch fare. Unfortunately, an unclear vision and lack of execution caused almost immediate problems for the café. Trey approached his friend Daniel to quickly come in and right the ship.
After a venture designing the Market Restaurant (now Standard Foods) didn’t materialize, Daniel was left waiting for his opening. TPC was just the opportunity. “The community wasn’t perceiving a problem yet, but they weren’t enticed or super stoked to come over. We wanted to change that with a little bit of marketing and a great menu.” Daniel’s first move was bringing in Patrick Cowden, who he first met working at Michael Jordan’s restaurant in Chapel Hill nearly fourteen years ago. “I flew in chefs from all over the country, but always knew the right choice was just a few miles away. Everyone who worked in the kitchen under Patrick went on to be a head chef, private chef, or head of hospitality. He is an educator as much as an amazing chef. The fact that he holds an accounting degree doesn’t hurt either.” At the same time, Daniel was also looking for a full-time executive chef for Green Planet Catering, so the timing and opportunity proved serendipitous.
After a complete overhaul to the menu and a re-imagining of the space, the café was quickly off and running. Daniel brought in a community table, new signage, and tabletop toys for the family. “We paid attention to our customers on what they would like to see, what was missing, and what we could do better.” With healthy and substantial breakfast offerings like “Pedro”, the Café Burrito and an assortment of fresh breads, jellies, and jams (made in house!), TPC became a neighborhood staple virtually overnight. Undeniably, the key to the café is the lunch specials. Every single day, that small chalkboard next to the register is displaying some uniquely and newly crafted creation. In over a year, I’ve literally never been disappointed!
As a small business owner, Daniel views himself as much a facilitator as anything else. “I’m passionate about providing jobs for excellent people. People who are better than me.” Daniel, who is constantly looking for his next project, is a firm believer in “manager-managed” companies. “I always have the intention of putting stronger people than me in leadership positions so I can step back. That doesn’t always work out, but we have very little turnover.” Instead of employing an ever-shifting number of part-time restaurant workers, Daniel empowers his small staff by providing full time dedicated positions as well as the opportunity for additional hours at Green Planet Catering. With much of the staff splitting time, and the repurposing of excess ingredients, both GPC and TPC are able to run with very minimal waste and overhead.
For Daniel, it all comes back to sustainability. “Everything is composted or recycled. No plastics except for food wrap. We are completely committed to waste reducing programs.” In 2007, he started farming with NC State Agriculture education farm, producing primarily for GPC. “For nearly 7-years, we had a private partnership with the NCSU agriculture school. We had a 6-acre spot near Yates Mill Pond where I spent 40 hours a week farming for GPC. At the same time, we developed a partnership with Pete Pagano of Tir Na Nog, running GPC from their kitchens.” Daniel and his team even began using the fryer oil from Tir Na Nog to make bio-fuel for GPC trucks. Between sustainably growing and harvesting their own produce and converting spent oils in bio-fuel, GPC began to win awards for sustainability. Today, the 65-person staff works out of a large production facility in Cary, providing everyday drop offs, boxed lunches, and hot buffets for corporate clients.
Currently, Daniel isn’t doing much farming, except for at home, where he grows and supplies most of the fresh herbs for GPC and TPC. I learned pretty quickly that a few things are very important to him. Community empowerment, sustainability, adventure, and reflection seem to guide his path. “I need a place to ponder. I make better decisions on a surfboard on the water than I do behind the counter.” He’s known to peel off for Wrightsville at a moments notice to surf but you can typically catch him around downtown on his one-wheel. Daniel, who loves going back country camping stepped off the Appalachian Trail in June after hiking 100 miles. He’s worked out at Crossfit Invoke for the last 11 years and fought MMA for seven. “I injure myself a lot, because activities requiring a lot of intensity help me. I have to be so focused on maintaining myself that it really allows me to clear my head.”
On the question of Hustle, Talent, or Luck, Daniel immediately interrupted me with, “Hustle”. “There are talented and lucky people all over place, but less people willing to put their head down and put in what it takes to be an entrepreneur." Besides hustle, Daniel gives due credit to the City of Oaks. “I have really strong feelings about Raleigh. That’s why I’m here. It’s the best place to run a business. As a water and adventure enthusiast, Raleigh doesn’t make much sense but damn what a vibe, what a buzz.” Like most business owners in Raleigh, Daniel has benefited greatly from the depth of staffing because of the quality of higher education in the area. “In today’s market, it can be hard for young people to get a job, so I have a lot of talented, educated people to reach out to for these projects. As a navy brat I’ve never had a sense of community. Now in this neighborhood I have a stage. Not to preach, but to listen and interact with everybody. I’ve never been anywhere this long. It feels really cool.”
Learn more about The Pharmacy Café and Green Planet Catering as well as a few of Daniel’s favorite small businesses in the area below:
For Private Events or Catering: 919-977-3405
For Careers at TPC or Green Planet Catering: email@example.com
Check out the TPC Breakfast / Lunch Menu HERE