EAT Club Presents: Our Incredible Female Restaurant Partners
Tell us about your background, your inspiration, and what led you to start a business in food.
I started Indian Bento after over a decade in travel and hospitality with Cathay Pacific in Hong Kong, where I had moved to from Bombay. As a first-class flight attendant, I knew every international city's best food, whether it was London, New York, Tokyo, Barcelona or Bombay. When I moved to San Francisco, I saw that, like all international cities, Indian food was popular, but it was for occasional dining only. There was something about the heft of traditional Indian curries that made them not fit for the corporate culture. Also, there was no Indian street food here, and Bombay, where I grew up, is the mecca of street food with fresh flavors and unique items. I saw an opportunity to bring lighter, flavorful Indian foods that used the best culinary techniques to create a tasty meal that would leave you energized and not overfull. After setting up a website, I took online orders and delivered the meals myself in my trusty yellow Mini Cooper, the "PASHMINI". Zynga noticed and became my first corporate customer. After that we brought on LinkedIn, and we were off to the races with Indian food as a subscription service for businesses.
What is your current role in the business?
I'm the Get-2000-Meals-Cooked-and-Delivered-by-10-AM-in-Chief. Mostly, you know me as the person who remembers every customer, what makes them happy, every allergen request, every favorite meal, and every company's preference. Then I'm the CEO, the people manager, executive chef and the production engineer rolled into one as our team of 20 people make thousands of meals per day for corporate breakfast, lunch and dinner, corporate cafes, and stores and services like EAT Club.
How long have you been in the food industry and what has that been like for you?
Indian Bento will be 11 years old this month, and that's how long I've been in the food industry. I feel proud of having built a state of the art commercial kitchen that is the largest for Indian food in the San Francisco Bay Area.
What is something in your business journey you're particularly proud of accomplishing?
I feel very proud of having created dozens of jobs in San Francisco, and of generating steady, successful business for the hardworking vendors and partners who have supported us from the beginning. I truly believe that a rising tide lifts all boats, and Indian Bento's success has enabled its diverse group of employees (we have employed workers from more than 7 countries) to create a real home in this community doing something they love.
In line with Women's History Month, what are your thoughts on being a woman in the food industry?
The most important person in the food industry is the customer, yet entrepreneurs in the food industry are often focused more on their craft and stature, rather than the customer. I always cared immensely for the people who entrusted me with nourishing their employees, and I always let my heart lead the relationship, as opposed to my pocketbook.
As for being a woman in the food industry, just like any other person, you need to know your craft and you need to be confident; you have to speak your mind. In difficult times or if discriminated against, you have to advocate for yourself, because no one else will do it for you.
What advice would you give another woman looking to start a business in food?
Be profitable from the first day you start your business. Only once did we take out a loan to build our commercial kitchen, and we paid that back within a year, by generating profits. We've always stayed focused on running a food business that has a robust financial engine, and never felt that we had another option. Raising investments or taking huge loans was never on our mind, and it has been a boon for us over the last decade.
What is the biggest lesson you've learned while growing your business?
Ensure that there are no critical points of failure in the business, whether that's a delivery truck (we have 5 large trucks), cooks, equipment, or dishwashers.
Anything else our EATers should know about you, your food, or your brand?
Indian Bento’s tagline is, "Great Food Equals Happy Teams.” If our customers are happy, we are motivated to make even better food. I believe that people eat food starting with their eyes, and so I travel the world, sampling all cuisines, and getting ideas for colors, presentation, and pairings. At the end of the day, I am happiest when I am in my multicultural hometown, Bombay, sampling the many varied cuisines from Churchgate to Chowpatty Beach!
Edited by Leena Chitnis