Striving to Serve: Balli’s Social Event Center
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A series spotlighting locally-owned businesses adjusting to the pandemic
Over a plate of their signature chicken parmesan, Aaron Balli, the owner of Balli’s Social Event Center, spoke about the abrupt transition they had to make when the COVID-19 pandemic placed restrictions on the county.
Balli’s Social Event Center, located at 1620 E. Griffin Parkway in Mission, is one of five Balli’s locations that caters and offers quality space and services for any event one could imagine. Aaron, who runs Balli’s along with his sister Belinda’s Catering Service, has seen the need for event centers grow across the Valley over the years.
“In the Valley we have a lot of small parties for 50 to 100 people that the big event centers can’t accommodate, or they’re too expensive,” Balli said. “We do any type of events.”
Aaron started his business ventures with Hottie’s Grill and Bar in 1996. From there, he opened Kooly’s, another club, bar and grill that hosted a wide array of people. As more and more people began asking Balli to rent out his space for private parties and events for 100 to 150 people, he got the idea to open up a venue where families in the Rio Grande Valley can enjoy some delicious food and have a good time.
“I said, you know, why not, let’s make it special for private parties,” Balli said. “Being open every day was a lot of work, and it was too much.”
With five locations of various sizes, Balli’s is able to host gatherings big and small – bridal and baby showers, weddings, quinceaneras, corporate events and holiday parties. Those familiar with the Texas Citrus Fiesta have likely visited a Balli’s event center location, for either the Product Costume Showcase or the Royal Reception.
In the midst of one of their busiest seasons, Balli’s was faced with a challenge they never would have expected: the coronavirus. Aaron said the restrictions on social gatherings, which caused several events to be postponed or cancelled all together, were a very hard blow on the successful business.
“We went from certain income to no income whatsoever,” Balli said. “You get used to seeing a lot of people, and that interaction with others has died down. It’s hard to also bring future business, because you’re not making those connections all the time.”
After a few days of thinking, Aaron and his sister decided to open a drive-thru food service at the Social Event Center on Griffin Parkway as a means of keeping the business afloat. At lunchtime daily, they offer special plates made with fresh meat and produce.
“Our food is really good, people love my food, I think,” Balli said. “We started doing plates, and it’s going very well.”
Balli hopes that patrons going through the drive-thru remember their business, so when they open back up they know they can cover catering and events.
“It was a good way to keep our name in people’s faces and conversations,” Balli said. “We’re very proud of the product.”
Aaron, who works with his sister Belinda on recipes for their food service, said his experience working at the Cimarron Country Club gave him the skills needed to run a kitchen and create beautiful decor and arrangements.
“It’s about quality of food and service – that means a lot to me,” Balli said. “It needs to be balanced.”
Aaron Balli said he felt Mission residents may get bored with standard fast food fare, so they figured a full meal for $7 would be reasonable and offer a healthier and tastier alternative.
“I get tired of tacos,” Balli said. “And you spend so much money, but then even after you eat, you don’t feel good [physically].”
Supporting local business is a crucial endeavor, according to Aaron.
“It’s very important,” Balli said. “I like to help out a lot. Without businesses and taxpayers, there wouldn’t be anything.”
The drive-thru has been successful so far, according to Balli’s, and they intend to keep it running even after the restrictions on public gatherings lifts and they are able to host events again. Though he initially “freaked out” when the guidelines were put in place, Aaron has found people receptive to their to-go plates.
“We restructured and had a great response,” Balli said. “People liked it so much that they want us to stay like this in the future, and that’s what I’m going to do.”
Balli’s offers several dishes, but Aaron is most proud of their multiple variations on chicken, which they get freshly cut from Rio Grande Poultry. He eventually wants to hone in on his chicken tender recipe, as they’ve received countless compliments on their sauces, cooked in-house.
“Chicken is the most neutral food, and you can do a lot with it,” Balli said. “Every day we have a different item, or two items.”
Aaron said that he hopes Missionites stay safe and careful amidst everything going on with COVID-19. Balli’s Social Event Center can be reached at (956) 821-5499.
“Use CDC guidelines and use common sense,” Balli said. “There are certain things that people can do to be as safe as they can. If they don’t have to go somewhere, it’s very simple: don’t go.”