By Naomi Tomky
Faced with the pandemic shutdowns less than two years after opening Spice Waala, their Indian street food restaurant in Seattle, Aakanksha Sinha and Uttam Mukherjee leaned on the restaurant’s founding values—authenticity, investing in employees, and community engagement. So far they’ve made it through the crisis without cutting any staff—or even cutting any hours—and they’re still planning to open another location in 2021.
UTTAM MUKHERJEE: We opened Spice Waala in 2018 at the South Lake Union Market in Seattle. We constantly were selling out, one of the top vendors at the market. It was just natural to take the next step and open up a restaurant.
We chose Indian food because it’s very stereotyped in America. Everyone knows curry and naan, chicken tikka masala, saag paneer, that kind of stuff. But no one knows about the diversity of street food specifically from India.
India is such a diverse country, with 29 states and almost as many languages, if not more. Every different region has its own cuisine, and what we grew up with—in Delhi for Aakanksha, and in Kolkata for me—was very, very different than what we found here representing Indian food.
Street food is a fantastic equalizer for people because no matter what your income level is or who you are, you are served exactly the same food at the exact same quality and exactly the same price. It was a fantastic way for us to bring to life our overall social justice mission.
AAKANKSHA SINHA: When we were coming up with the restaurant, we had three specific values that we thought about.
We wanted to make sure that we would expose people to authentic Indian flavors—and by authentic, I mean things that are authentic to us. There’s a lot of diversity that Uttam spoke about, for Indian flavors and Indian cuisine, but we wanted to showcase food that we grew up with, and that’s what we proudly presented.
The second value was investing in our employees. We’re trying to move away from the stereotype of the restaurant industry where the employees are not treated that well. We pay all our employees a living wage—effectively, it comes to about $24 to $26 hourly right now, during the pandemic. We provide all full-time employees with health benefits to make sure that they have access to healthcare. And then they get profit from our company. Quarterly, we look at the amount of profit and make sure that we’re giving it back to them because they are working hard to make sure that the company is growing and doing well.
The third piece is community engagement and community impact. I have a background in social work—I’m an assistant professor at Seattle University, and my area of research is food justice. So we really approached our community engagement piece through evidence and research informed by my work.
UTTAM: Neither of us had any industry experience before opening Spice Waala. I had worked at Procter and Gamble as a brand manager. When we broke down the company and what we wanted to stand for, it was natural for us to think about values. One of the biggest things that we have seen in both of our previous non-restaurant-industry experiences is that when you invest in the people who are working with you the most, you get the best result. That was part of why we came up with the second value of investing in our employees. The third value, community engagement, was solely from Aakanksha’s research and her practice.
AAKANKSHA: Our community engagement program is called Bhojan, which essentially means meal or feast in Hindi, and before the pandemic we were partnering with various nonprofits and providing them donations for food that would be culturally appropriate and things that they would need for their operation. After the pandemic began, we started a community kitchen program from our restaurant. Uttam and I were cooking up meals every Monday and Tuesday, and giving out about 50 to 60 meals.
We grew and evolved the program based on feedback that we got from the community. I spoke to a bunch of different nonprofits to try and understand their immediate needs. A lot of nonprofits said that they weren’t able to provide hot meals because of the number of people that were facing food insecurity. Right now, we’re at about 12,000 meals total completed, doing 100 meals per week.
We started serving vegetarian or vegan meals because a lot of the nonprofits were saying they were getting very typical Western food, either donated or served at hot meals. Seattle has a very big immigrant community, and one thing I found in my research, and just speaking with a bunch of food organizations, has been that a lot of refugee or immigrant communities do not get culturally relevant food. We wanted to fill in that gap.
The second thing that we tried to do was provide diversity. Another major stereotype about food access and food pantries is that people should eat whatever they can get. These people are not only facing food insecurity, but a ton of mental and emotional struggles and challenges as well. How can we make their life a little easier? By providing food that they can enjoy, and moving them out of that rut of eating the same food every day.
We try to make sure that we provide different types of meals every week, creating a little bit of diversity in the food. Going back to our culture and our values of what food is for us, it’s not only that you’re filling your stomach with calories. It’s the idea that whatever is going to fill your system should be impacting you emotionally as well as physically.
It’s very, very important that we don’t differentiate with the quality of food that we are providing to the community that needs food, versus the community that’s buying food. The inequity exists, but we are all a part of one community.
UTTAM: Growing up in India, some of the most flavorful meals that we’ve ever had have been free meals at temples or places of worship. It’s called bhog at Hindu temples and festivals, and langar in Sikh temples. Essentially, if you go to a temple, they will give you a pretty wholesome and usually vegetarian meal that’s made by volunteers in the community. They will be serving you no matter what time of day, and they’re flavorful because they’re made from a place of goodness. There’s no differentiation between who you are when you walk into that temple or place of worship. You’re given exactly the same food. That was one big part of the emotional inspiration for us.
When the pandemic hit, we doubled down on community engagement because we could see there was a spike in unemployment and in the lack of access to food. And since we wanted to make sure that we invested in our employees during this difficult time, we committed from day one of the pandemic that we would not cut a single hour or single shift, and we would make sure that they were insulated from this pandemic.
We went through our financials. We tried to make sure we had enough cash flow to survive, and every day and every week, we revise and see how many more weeks we could survive if things keep the same. We knew there was a tremendous amount of mental and physical strain because of the pandemic. We saw this as owners also, and so we ensured that the people who were with us for the longest time had the option that if they didn’t want to work, we’d still pay them. Then we made sure that they got a week of paid time off halfway through the pandemic to recuperate mentally and physically.
AAKANKSHA: Right in the beginning, like all other restaurant owners, we panicked. We were scared, worried about what would happen. But those three values really helped ground us. We needed to find a way to center ourselves and make sure that we were doing something that we really believe, rather than scrambling. Being nimble and innovating, but for something that was really important to us.
UTTAM: The innovation that has come out of this industry has been awe-inspiring—how people are changing their concepts overnight. We tried to understand what would make our loyal customers come back to our restaurant week after week. Pretty early on we started doing special menu items every single week. Because of the authenticity factor that we wanted to bring to the table for Indian cuisine, we started taking customers on a journey around Indian food, around the different regions, and exposing them to items that they may have never tried before, or never even heard of, but were authentic to us—to what we experienced when growing up in India. By doing that, we found that customers came back to see what journey they would be going on that week, what items they’ll be able to explore, what nuances we were able to explain to them.
The first couple of months of the pandemic, we were extremely nervous. There was a lot of uncertainty. There was no help that was coming from any government or organization. We were able to weather the first couple of months and stay barely afloat. Luckily, prior to the pandemic we had been able to build up a little bit of cash flow, so we were able to maintain that through the pandemic.
We know our team is due for another round of mental and physical rejuvenation, so we are going to give our team one and a half weeks paid time off during Christmas and New Year’s to make sure that they can recuperate. Coming out of the holidays, we’re hoping that—even if the restrictions are not lifted—we can hit the ground running and try to recuperate some of the sales that we might have lost during that time.
Coming out of the pandemic, we’re looking to expand and actually start getting some efficiencies from scale. We could continue to be on the back foot and hope and wait for help, but if we can flip it and try to be on the front foot and be a little bit more aggressive, we’re hoping we can actually come out of the pandemic a little bit stronger. It’s been a really weird nine months, and we’re just hoping that we can get some kind of normalcy.
We’re opening a second location in 2021. We’re hoping that we can help more people in our community through our meal program, as well as a few other expansions of the Bhojan program. We’re hoping that we can help more people in the community through employment at a higher wage than what they expect today. And we’re just hoping that we can grow from here.