Americans are hungry — and not for the same old fast-food fare. Whether it's due to the proliferation of cable TV food programming or a doctors' advice to watch what we eat, as a culture, Americans are becoming more aware of food's importance to health, and simultaneously appreciating a wider variety of foods. But we're still not cooking at home.
We want good-quality, healthy (and delicious) food prepared for us, but we're coming out of an economic downswing, so we don't want to pay too much for it (though it does seem that more of us are willing to pay for quality ingredients).
Pretty much every company that sells food is looking to attract this healthier-minded (and more food-educated) customer. When you can get a wrap with arugula on it at Mickey D's you know times are changing, but many large companies have been slow to change and adapt to the new market desires, leaving room for smart upstarts that fit somewhere between table-service restaurants and fast food, and which allow the customization that Millennials demand (think Chipotle). With an eye on McDonald's declining value in the cultural and economic marketplaces, it's a smart bet that hungry people are looking for new and exciting flavors on top of affordability and convenience. Enter Tava Indian Kitchen.
Vijay Brihmadesam (pictured with Hasnain Zaidi, on the left), one of the minds behind Tava, is an entrepreneur who has mastered this new market. Probably because he and his friends are the target market, and also because he has a genuine passion for delicious food, Vijay has succeeded where so many restaurants fail. But he didn't start as a restauranteur, nor did he come from a family that owned eateries. He got his start in finance.
So how did he get from working at Bain Capital to running Tava Indian Kitchen?
"I was headed to Denver for work, and a friend (Jason Pate) happened to be on the same plane by chance. We got to talking about how we both wanted to do something more creative. We also both wanted to bring Indian culture to the mainstream and thought food was the way to to it."
They immediately wrote a couple of pages about their plan (this was January of 2011), and looked for a third person to join their team (Hasnain Zaidi). By September they had quit their jobs and had acquired the capital they needed (from their former bosses no less!) After a stint working the line at Chipotle to get first-hand knowledge of the biz, the team opened the first Tava Indian Kitchen in February 2012. There are now three Tavas, all located in California; two in the tech center of Palo Alto and a third in the financial district of San Francisco.
Health was a big part of their mission (they knew that in their market it was a priority) and Vijay says that although typical Indian restaurant fare isn't exactly diet food ("We'd all be 300 pounds if Indian people ate the food served in Indian restaurants every day"), he knew from his time cooking at home with his family (which he always enjoyed) that the cuisine can be made healthfully and still pack plenty of flavor.
"We fresh-grind chutneys in house each day; it's lime, ginger, mint, green onion, and Thai chilies." says Vijay, enumerating the healthy aspects of Tava's food. "We use a little cream in our dishes, but mostly we use yogurt and coconut milk to reduce calorie content and get the same rich creamy taste — sans food coma. Our dal has no ghee in it and we braise lamb, which removes fat from the meat." Meats are also hormone-free and they source produce locally.
A Tava Indian Kitchen Burroti with chicken, brown rice, and tikka masala sauce. (Photo: Chris Rochelle/CHOW.com)
But no matter how good an idea, and no matter how delicious the food, execution is the key to any business. Vijay and his partners jumped in and did every job, from cooking food to serving customers, so they could make adjustments from the get-go — and get to know their customers. It was a smart move: "We’ve changed a lot since the beginning," says Vijay. "Our biggest challenge was probably making sure that product is consistent (customers demand consistency) and training people to ensure that. We can’t be there making food every day."
Vijay says the company will continue to expand — slowly — but that innovation is key. He wants to grow sustainably (and creatively): he aims to make more seasonal veggie mixes and even their own real-sugar sodas (so they can get rid of high-fructose corn syrup-based beverages). And the trio of friends is having a blast working together. And there's always more to learn — about hot sauce, for example. "We were thinking that the American palate wasn’t going to like that much spice," says Vijay. "But our in-house hot sauce flies off the bar."
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Photo: Chris Rochelle/CHOW.com