Thomas Chepey & The Chuckwagon Cafe
July 01, 2023 9:58 PM CDT

Surrounding the newly built Capitol Mall in Austin, stretching from Martin Luther King Boulevard to 15th Street, stand numerous government offices. On a regular day, you would see government workers in casual formal clothing holding their coffee, strutting away to their office. In the midst of a setting seemly meant to be serious and down to business stands a café.

The Chuckwagon Café.

Recently opened in late January of 2023, the Chuckwagon Café offers a variety of foods ranging from breakfast tacos to pulled pork sandwiches. Located on the first floor of the Barbara Jordan building, the Chuckwagon Café has grown to be a fan favorite amongst regular citizens.

Managing the café is no easy task, according to Thomas Chepey, the owner of the Chuckwagon Café.

“When I tell you the hours and what we do, most people would say I don’t want to be in the restaurant business,” Thomas Chepey said.

While the café opens at 7 a.m., Thomas Chepey and Kimberly Chepey, Thomas Chepey’s wife and co-worker, start getting ready four hours earlier. Living about 45 miles outside of Austin, the married couple takes about two hours to get ready before leaving promptly at 5 a.m. to reach the café about 45 minutes later.

With the sun yet to rise and no pedestrians visible at the Capitol Mall, Thomas Chepey starts doing his daily duties.

“I come in before the employees get in to make sure everything is up and running,” Thomas Chepey said.

From there, the one hour and 15 minutes leading up to opening consist of Thomas Chepey coordinating the entire flow of operations.

When there is a staffing shortage, Thomas Chepey incorporates himself in the kitchen by blending salsa or wrapping brisket.

“The multitasking is extreme at this point,” Thomas Chepey said.

Amid coordinating and conducting various tasks, Thomas Chepey does this with a disability.

“I’m legally blind. My vision is about 20/300,” Thomas Chepey said.

While Thomas Chepey’s lack of vision limits him from doing a lot of motor activities, it happens to be the reason why the Chuckwagon café exists at the Capitol Mall.

In order to get his café on the premises of a government location, Thomas Chepey had to go through the process of bidding for it. To Thomas Chepey’s advantage, the Randolph-Sheppard Act gives priority to legally blind people for operating vending facilities on federal property, hence the existence of the Chuckwagon Café on the Capitol Mall.

Despite the disability, Thomas Chepey does his best by peering down and using a magnifying glass to read labels or invoices on boxes.

“I’ve had to suck up some pride, and to make things quicker in business, I will ask somebody for help,” Thomas Chepey said.

When it comes to more in-depth information, Kimberly Chepey steps in to help.

“I have to pick up a lot more of the fine detail stuff (such as) the ordering of products (or) checking-in inventory,” Kimberly Chepey said. “It’s challenging and fun at the same time.”

Regardless of the disability, Thomas Chepey’s presence is seen as a valuable asset to the café.

“He’s a man of knowledge,” said Leroy De La Garza, a chef from the Chuckwagon Café. “He can come down and break things down to the cent.”

That knowledge of planning and computing comes in handy when dealing with customers on a daily basis. Traffic within the Chuckwagon café varies throughout the day, but the site sees the most traffic from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m.

“When we go plan a menu, he’s the one who determines how much of a certain product we need,” Kimberly Chepey said. “So (for example) if we are going to serve 90 people, he’s computing what type of meats are needed, how much the meat will shrink, and therefore how much extra do we need to buy.”

While meeting customer demands is vital to operating the business, Thomas Chepey says customer interaction is the most important element regarding his café operations.

“The staff, they got to be friendly, outgoing,” Thomas Chepey said. “It’s not like a typical cafeteria where it’s all stainless steel, and nobody really talks to you, and you feel like you’re in an institution.”

Throughout the hours the Chuckwagon Café is open, Thomas Chepey often strikes up engaging conversations with new and daily customers.

“We pride ourselves on customer service,” Kimberly Chepey said. “Tom has been a big part of instilling a lot of that through his restaurant experience.”

Instilling the customer service element through his experience has been a testimony to his character.

“He has a big heart and is a good person,” Leroy De La Garza said. “He is very understanding as he empathizes and sympathizes with people.”

With his intuition to be a good person to his employees and customers, Thomas Chepey emphasizes that coming to the Chuckwagon Café will be an experience one wouldn’t regret.

“Come out and give us a try,” Thomas Chepey said. “Buy a cup of coffee, sit down for a minute, and I’ll tell you who I am. This is what Texas Friendly is right here. This is who we are.”