The restaurant business is obviously one of the growing industries in the Valley. Restaurants of many nationalities, major chains and independents are sprouting up - hoping for the successful ingredients that will make them a winner to the customers found here in South Texas.

Binding them together is the Upper Valley Restaurant Association (UVRA) which is a part of the Texas Restaurant Association which, in turn, is affiliated with the National Restaurant Association. Jerry Maddox, general manager of Hooters, is the current president and Darrell Duarte, area director of Chili’s, is the current vice-president/past-president of the local association.

“Every industry has its own association that helps with legislation, education and insurance,” said Maddox. “The UVRA does this and also helps with the expansion and growth of our industry. It’s for all restaurants from the small Mom and Pop places to all corporate entities, as well.”

Their education assistance can help students in high school. The national organization is testing a program — Brownsville and Mercedes are part — which builds a professional, working style kitchen inside a school and teaches students how to manage that kitchen from food costs all the way to making sure the recipes are exact.

“It’s very detail oriented,’ Maddox said. “The second part takes students to restaurants for a couple of hours to see how a real restaurant works. It’s a great tool for them. When you learn at an early age, you’re empowering yourself to get a head start on your career.”

A Boot Camp is held twice a year for local restaurants’ management teams where everything from running a restaurant effectively, keeping up with the books, writing P&Ls and controlling food costs will be covered.

“Even if you’re a non-member you can attend,” said Maddox. “As a restauranteur controlling food costs and increasing profits is the bottom line.”

Another major benefit of membership is workman’s compensation.

“You’re going to be able to get workman’s comp insurance at a much reduced rate than if one tried to get it on their own,” said Duarte. “It’s like everything else - purchasing power is in numbers.”

Recent legislation pushed by PACT - their Political Action Committee - improves the bottom line. In the past, any newly built or modifications to an established restaurant would take 39 and a half years to depreciate, with the restaurants paying taxes the whole time. With recent legislation change, it now only a 15 year program.

“This is a huge savings,” Duarte said. “With a $750,000 restaurant or addition, the savings could be about $7,000 a year less in taxes. You have to sell a lot of hamburgers to make $7,000.”

With the growth of the restaurant industry in the Valley, changes are coming.

“We’re seeing an influx of restaurants,” said Duarte. “The new All American Jackson’s Sports Grill, out of Colorado, has their first franchise outside the state. Cheddar’s will be opening and Chili’s has doubled in size in a 16 month period because our particular market here allows for that.

“We’re seeing a lot more people who are coming into the industry, a lot more employment,” he said. “A year from now there should be many more employees in the industry than there are today.”

“The service level has definitely gone up in the past five years,” Maddox said. “With the amount of competition which has come in, it has forced every restaurant to make better servers and strive harder to win those customers back. It forces you to be better.”

A draw to the employees is the flexibility the industry offers.

“We actually list that as one of the benefits for working for us,” said Maddox. “Flexibility with school schedules and parents with other obligations don’t have to worry about time as much.”

Since training costs are high, restaurants vie to be the “Employer of Choice,” as Maddox so aptly states. “When you try to bring in the best possible people, you try to bring in people who are experienced. We want to insure we take care of those people so we can retain those people.”

For fun and funds the UVRA holds a golf tournament donating the funds to their scholarship program for students who wish to go to college in the hospitality industry. Their latest tournament raised $7486.36 towards the fund.

A fundraiser that has become a favorite is their Dine Around Night. For a mere $50 one can board a bus and be wined and dined around town to visit local restaurants, try new foods, drinks and laugh a lot. The next one will be in April and the association needs 12 restaurants willing to host a bus load. Please call Jerry Maddox at 971-9464 or Darrell Duarte at 630-4108 for more information.

Being part of the community is important to them. Participating with the Food Bank in general, especially their Empty Bowls fundraiser, working with Teach for America and becoming members of the local Chamber of Commerces shows their determination to contribute to the Valley.

The UVRA is helping the lower Rio Grande Valley restaurants to get an association up and running or simply become one complete Valley Restaurant Association.

“We’re trying to push hard to get a lot of representation down here,” Maddox said. “The more places of business we can get the more representation we’re going to have on the state and federal level.”