By Anne Cruz
Rahul Vinod and Sahil Rahman are co-founders of Rasa, a chain of fast-casual Indian eateries in and around Washington DC. Vinod and Rahman are second-generation restaurateurs—their fathers K.N. Vinod and Surfy Rahman have worked together for 30 years at their restaurants Bombay Bistro and Indique.
RAHUL VINOD: The story of Rasa starts with both of our fathers. Because of their friendship and partnership, Sahil and I have known each other since birth. It’s almost more like we’re brothers. A huge part of how we got to where we are today is having that foundational friendship and underlying respect for each other.
Because we’ve had this deep-rooted friendship since we were born, we’re not scared to say how we feel with each other. It’s been a challenging few years getting the restaurant up and going, but we’re grateful that we have this understanding that’s allowed us to stay together despite the challenging circumstances.
SAHIL RAHMAN: It’s so unique that this is a multi-generational situation. Our fathers have been business partners for 30 years. That really sets us up well for success.
VINOD: Our fathers’ oldest restaurant is 30 years old, and both Sahil and I are 31, so we quite literally learned how to walk inside of an Indian restaurant. We worked in the restaurant from a very young age, and even when we were in college we were working as servers and bartenders on the weekends.
RAHMAN: The different perception of Indian cuisine from when our fathers started out to now is like night and day. When we were kids, you would get low-key shamed for bringing Indian food to school to a point where my mom made me turkey sandwiches for 10 years because curry wasn’t cool.
As we started getting older, we started bringing our non-Indian friends to the restaurant, whether it was friends on the soccer team, or other people that we grew up with. Some of them came kicking and screaming, but they couldn’t say no because it was our family business. It was a revelation for a lot of people. They didn’t understand how it was possible that they liked this food, because they’d spent their whole lives telling themselves that they didn’t. We witnessed this moment of someone’s perception of their palate changing—their world expands through food. Over time, we came to realize that the challenge Indian food was navigating was much more related to perception and service than it was reality.
We’ve gone from The Simpsons to Gwyneth Paltrow doing turmeric cleanses. Indian culture has permeated the mainstream in a way that few people are aware of. Things like yoga and meditation and mindfulness—those are all not only Eastern traditions, but Indian traditions.
On the cuisine side, people are really becoming way more open-minded. In cities, we’re seeing that most people have tried Indian food, and they like it. But the challenge is that they don’t eat it that often. And the reason is because it hasn’t been super accessible. First you’ve got to find an Indian restaurant. Historically, they’ve been in random shopping centers. Now you might have some more upscale spots, but they’re not necessarily cheap. And a lot of times people just don’t even know what order. So they go with their Indian friends and they place their order, or they get their butter chicken, saag, and garlic naan.
VINOD: When we were in high school, we both started to have this same idea for an Indian fast-casual concept. That was when Chipotle was really taking off. We were like, we have rice, beans, chicken—we’ll call it Chapati instead of Chipotle. I definitely had a little bit of an idea back then, but I took more of the traditional “your parents are immigrants, and then you now work in a solid corporate job” path. So I ended up becoming an investment banker in New York City before Sahil and I decided to take the leap and start Rasa.
RAHMAN: I actually had a strong interest in some version of this idea from quite a young age, and I had written a small business plan for an idea like this in high school. In college, I worked at Uncle Julio’s and Outback Steakhouse in Southeast Asia to learn about how restaurants operated, how restaurants scaled. I majored in supply chain and ops management because I got marketing conceptually, but that side of the business felt so important. It’s funny, because I was under this delusion that I was going to start this out of college.
Senior year, my dad called me and was like, “I’ve heard that all my friends’ kids who are seniors have their jobs all lined up. How are you doing with that?” I told him, “Remember that restaurant idea? I’m going to start that.” And he just fully deadpanned: “With whose money?” I applied for two jobs that same day. I was like, “Oh shit.” Somehow, my business degree didn’t have me think through the business plan there.
I joined the corporate world and was breaking into consulting for a little bit, but having grown up in an entrepreneurial family, it just wasn’t the right fit for me. The idea of Rasa was something I had been curious about, but it took some time to figure out the right timing and the right format. I think the missing piece was talking to Rahul and getting him on board, because I definitely was not ready and would not have been able to do this on my own.
We made the decision to jump in around 2015, and that was the moment when fast-casual as a category was really starting to take off. I personally don’t like fancy restaurants, especially when I was younger and I couldn’t afford to go to certain places, or I could feel the stress of going to places that were too expensive. I really appreciated the simplicity of fast-casual, how it was affordable, and how it could be a great way to introduce people to Indian cuisine. The other thing was that we grew up in fine dining and upscale casual restaurants. It’s hard to run fast-casual, but it’s a whole different beast from full-service from the standpoint of staffing bussers, servers ,bartenders, you name it.
VINOD: Our fathers were very supportive from day one. A core piece of Rasa is the relationship with our parents and how involved they are. When we were fundraising, we would take investors to our fathers’ restaurant and do a mini-version of the Rasa tasting menu. And from the culinary end, Sahil and I were both not chefs in our former lives. We had to rely on my father, who is a chef. But he wasn’t just going to hand us all of his recipes.
He told us, “If you really want to do this, you’re going to go through the Kitchen 101 training.” We spent six months to a year inside of our dads’ restaurant kitchen building a strong foundation of cooking. That also helped us play a part in designing the menu.
RAHMAN: We spent a long time on the menu-testing phase, and we did some pop-up lunches where we set up our full line in my parents’ backyard as a practice run and getting feedback from friends and fans. We’ve tried to stay pretty authentic to the flavors that we grew up with and simplify things in terms of their names. So instead of calling it saag bhaji, we call it sauteed spinach. When you compose your meal at Rasa, you’re going to be getting a grain, a protein, a sauce, and a vegetable. So we didn’t want to put 10 different spices into every single dish because that would be overpowering. But some of our recipes are from my grandmother—my father’s mother—who still lives with us. Those were childhood things that I used to eat, and it’s the same recipe that she makes at home today. Instead of calling it inji puli, we call it tamarind ginger chutney.
VINOD: Nowadays, Sahil and I are definitely leading the charge, but they’re there for advice and guidance. My dad will still go around to all three restaurants without telling us and do a surprise “Mystery Diner” check to see how the food quality and the service are. He’ll text us his feedback. Our GMs will text us, “Oh my God, your dad stopped by today. Did he like everything?”
Since the beginning, my dad has continued to talk to both of us about how the main reason he and Sahil’s dad have been successful is the mutual respect they have for each other. As soon as one person makes a decision, it becomes both of theirs, and they both back it. They’re not pointing fingers like, “Oh man, why did you do that? You fucked up.”
RAHMAN: Hospitality runs through their veins, almost to a fault. They taught us the value of service and taking care of people because it’s the right thing to do, not just because it’s a good business decision. When our dads opened their first or second restaurant, Indique, it was slammed. You couldn’t get a table. They had a night where maybe they’d accidentally double-booked a table. A guest was frustrated because they had to wait, so they ended up leaving and going to the restaurant next door. My dad felt so bad that he actually went to the other restaurant and put his card down to take care of their meal and say, “We care about you and we’re sorry this happened.” That story embodies the ethos that they really tried to instill in us, which is one of truly taking care of people and being really hospitable and welcoming.
VINOD: The pandemic was a strange time for us, and also a moment of growth. We had one existing restaurant, and it lost 50 percent of its sales because all the lunch traffic from the Department of Transportation and all the other office workers was gone overnight. Simultaneously, DC shut down the second or third week of March, and we were actually getting ready to open up our second location in Mount Vernon Triangle in DC at the exact same time. The team had been hired, they had already been training at another location. We went in for the Health Department inspection and they said that they weren’t doing any new inspections because of COVID.
The whole world was in fear and in panic. We were like, “As restaurant owners, how can we help?” The first thing that came to mind was medical workers putting their lives on the line and working crazy shifts at all the hospitals. There were children who relied on school meals who were no longer going to school. So we immediately started offering free meals for schoolchildren and medical workers at our existing restaurant with the thought of, “We’ll figure out how to pay for it afterwards”.
Simultaneously, we’d been close with José Andres and World Central Kitchen for a long time. José is pretty good friends with both of our fathers since they’ve all been in the DC restaurant scene for a while. We reached out to them and said, “Hey, we have a fully built restaurant that can produce high-quality meals at large volumes relatively easily. Do you guys want to use our kitchen? How can we help?” We got on the phone with José, and World Central Kitchen CEO Nate Mook, said, “Guys, we’re ready to pay you for these meals. We know where the meals are needed, and we have the logistical support to get the meals there. Can you do 400 meals tomorrow for lunch by 10 am?” That started this amazing partnership where, over the course of six months, we served more than 30,000 meals to them. Some days we did over 2,000 meals before we even opened the restaurant.
Since we had made our own efforts to provide free meals for schoolchildren and medical workers, we created our own fundraiser called Feed the District. We partnered with former NFL player Vernon Davis, an investor of ours. We were able to raise $70,000, which allowed us to continue to feed more people and open it up to more groups. All these different efforts kept us busy throughout COVID and also gave our employees a sense of purpose. They were coming to work, and they felt like what they were doing was making an impact. It allowed us to keep on our team. Then we ended up opening up our second location later that summer.
RAHMAN: In the short term, we’re looking to double in size. We’re opening up our fourth restaurant this summer in Fairfax, Virginia, in a town center called Mosaic. And we’re looking for two or three other sites right now. From a big-picture standpoint, we’re just really excited to continue sharing our food and our culture with more people with this broader vision of using food as a vehicle for a cultural connection. We’re in a moment where there’s a lot of otherness and there’s a lot of fear, so if somebody is able to experience a whole new world through a $10 bowl of food, it might increase their curiosity to learn more about that place or the people that are from there.