Photo by Chris Ware
The last time you had a yen for Indian cuisine, Sushil Malhotra probably satisfied your craving, albeit indirectly. Have you ever had a fantastic meal at Chutney Masala in Irvington or taken clients to dinner at Dawat in Manhattan? Maybe you’ve picked up lunch at the Café Spice booth in Grand Central’s Dining Concourse. And if you frequent Whole Foods Market, you may have savored the Indian food from its hot bar.
You can thank Malhotra, 63, for all of those culinary delights. The Irvington resident also can be given major credit for bringing upscale Indian food to the United States. In fact, the food from Malhotra’s empire, Café Spice, is now so popular that he can hardly keep up with the demand. “In the early stages of Café Spice, we were getting calls from gourmet shops and stores like Zabar’s,” he says while relaxing with a cup of tea at a table at Chutney Masala, which he and Executive Chef Navjot Arora own. “Now, medium stores tell us that they, too, want to carry anything we have that is packaged.”
The “medium stores” that Malhotra, CEO and co-owner (with his son, Sameer) of the Café Spice corporation, is talking about are supermarket giants Safeway, Stop & Shop, Fairway, ShopRite, and Wegmans, which are hungry for the group’s “grab ’n’ go” items. “We are not even able to control it,” Malhotra says. “We are not actually looking for sales, which means that the masses are dictating it. We are penetrating from the exotic level to the masses level.” Oh, the horror!
Most food suppliers would relish being in that predicament. In the past 30 years, Malhotra’s Café Spice restaurants, Café Spice Express booths, and Zaika Flavors of India (the corporation’s wholesale division, which makes all of the food that it sells to outside outlets) have become major forces in the field of Indian cuisine in America. In 2011’s dismal economy, the group’s revenue grew 40 percent, to about $20 million. Malhotra founded the original Café Spice Restaurant Group (CSRG) with Rajesh Bhardwaj, who is no longer with the brand, but runs Junoon, an upscale Indian restaurant in Manhattan that Malhotra partly owns.
Malhotra, who grew up in India (he left in 1966) also became a major investor in the highly regarded restaurant Red Hat on the River when it moved from Irvington’s Main Street to riverfront Bridge Street. Opening another Chutney Masala in White Plains and an upscale Chinese restaurant in Irvington or Dobbs Ferry are among the ideas he is considering.
Malhotra is near the top of America’s Indian food chain now, but his ascent wasn’t easy. While most of India’s high-schoolers wanting to go to college overseas did so in England or other parts of Europe, Malhotra got a scholarship to CCNY and traveled to New York City—alone—in 1966, when he was just 17 years old. He earned a degree in engineering and went to work for Shell and American Electric Power. He later topped off his education with an MBA from NYU’s Stern School of Business.
Meanwhile, with very limited resources, many of his family members also migrated to The Big Apple. Malhotra and his father opened a small spice business that supplied South Asian spices, chutneys, and crispy breads to New York City’s curry houses. The Malhotras stored their spices in their Jackson Heights garage, and Sushil used his weekends to join his father in dropping off chutney and spices to Indian restaurants in Manhattan and Queens.
The Malhotras opened a store, Foods of India, which they eventually sold, in Manhattan’s Murray Hill neighborhood, and, in 1976, Sushil ditched engineering to become a restaurateur. “Indian food was very badly represented in the early 1970s,” he says. “I said, ‘There is a niche.’ So I got myself a couple of investment partners and opened my first Indian restaurant in 1976, on Park Avenue. It was called Akbar and represented India in its glory and cuisine.”
Diners apparently didn’t take well to Akbar, however. They found its doorman and black doors intimidating. “People were afraid to step inside,” Mahotra says. “They didn’t know what they’d find.” He spent the first 24 months regretting his departure from engineering until New York Times food critic Craig Claiborne wrote a glowing review, and Malhotra never looked back.
Drew Nieporent, who created the Myriad Restaurant Group, which operates a string of high-end restaurants—Corton, Tribeca Grill, Nobu, Nobu Fifty Seven, Nobu London, Next Door Nobu, and Centrico—recognized long ago that Malhotra had what it takes to make it in the restaurant business. “Sushil possessed a few important qualities for success: professional knowledge, experience in the business, and confidence in what you know,” Neiporent says. “He has the instincts and knowledge about what will sell.”
About nine years after opening Akbar, Malhotra felt that it had “peaked out.” He sold it, opened Dawat, and hired Madhur Jaffrey, who, at the time, was the Julia Child of Indian food. Malhotra’s second effort was a hit. “The food is some of the best, and certainly the most freshly prepared, Indian cuisine that I have had anywhere, and that includes India,” raved the New York Times. Its celeb guests included Derek Jeter, Donald Trump, and Whitney Houston. Malhotra also opened a Dawat in White Plains in 1990; it was there until 2006, when the landlord decided to raze the building.
By 1998, Malhotra wanted to expand his restaurant business in a way that would lure Americans’ cautious taste buds. “Our whole model was to open restaurants close to universities, especially international universities,” Malhotra says. So he debuted four Café Spice restaurants—in Manhattan; Philadelphia; Jersey City, New Jersey; and Gaithersburg, Maryland. Though the eateries were successful, the CSRG closed them in 2010 so it could concentrate on Café Spice Expresses and supplying supermarkets and other outlets.
The Express concept came about 12 years ago when the CSRG joined Grand Central Terminal’s new Dining Concourse, beating out at least 25 other Indian-food applicants. Considering the heavy foot traffic, it’s no surprise that Grand Central’s is, per square foot, the most profitable (although the ones now at universities are not far behind). The Expresses serve up food from a number of regions in India. Among the offerings are the North’s classic dishes, such as chicken tikka (yogurt-marinated chicken traditionally roasted in a tandoori oven; Express uses a convection oven) and the South’s masala dosa. Georgia Tech, Stony Brook University, and MIT are some of the 15 schools that have a Café Spice Express on their main campus. An Express unit’s average annual gross sale is $1 million to $1.5 million.
Next up on the Café Spice Express agenda: starting franchises in the US and Canada. Malhotra’s daughter, Sandhya, 22, a recent graduate of the Cornell School of Hotel Administration, will handle it when she joins the company. “I am taking Sandhya to London next week to show her some Indian restaurants,” Malhotra says. “Good Indian food dishes and presentations come out of London. She will join her brother in this business when she comes back.”
Sameer, 33, has a degree in entrepreneurship from Babson College, a private business school in Wellesley, Massachusetts. He and his wife, Payal, run the production end of the business, Zaika Flavors. One of his main short-term goals is to place 50 Café Spice Expresses in cafeterias at American colleges and corporations within four years. (Malhotra and his wife, Lata, have one more child, Bindya, 36; she lives in Manhattan and runs her own fashion business.)
The Grand Central location was a twofold success in that it turned into a gateway for Café Spice to expand when the head chef of the cafeteria at the United Nations, which is a few blocks from Grand Central, tasted a distinct difference between the Indian food at the UN and the Café Spice Express. Café Spice then started doing business with the UN but didn’t realize that just how much food it needed. The large quantities required resulted in Café Spice opening a 5,000-square-foot kitchen, where everything was marinated and chopped, in Long Island City. The UN chef ended up so pleased with Café Spice that he relayed the information to the chef at the International Monetary Fund in DC, who tried out Grand Central’s Café Spice Express himself. “And the next thing I know, I am supplying the IMF!” Malhotra says with a laugh. Zaika Flavors also supplies the posh corporate-dining headquarters of Citibank, JPMorgan Chase, AOL, and Goldman Sachs, respectively. The group’s food is also on the menu anonymously in 400 other cafeterias, and it caters personal social affairs and corporate gatherings.
Café Spice’s association with Whole Foods Market began a decade ago when Malhotra heard that the Columbus Circle Whole Foods hot bar included Indian food. He had never heard of a non-Indian store serving an Indian food buffet, so he visited the store and concluded that the food had been, as he puts it, “bastardized.” The Whole Foods chef happened to overhear the comment and chastised Malhotra with, “Just because you’re an Indian means that you know everything about Indian food?’” When Malhotra gave the chef his business card, the chef raved about the Café Spice Express in Grand Central.
With that, Whole Foods started ordering 12,000 to 15,000 pounds of food a week from Café Spice, whose headquarters were subsequently relocated from Long Island City to New Windsor. Malhotra shelled out $7 million to transform a sausage manufacturing plant into a 125-employee, 50,000-square-foot plant on 11 acres. The New Windsor chefs create the primary sauces and marinades, bundle them in containers, and transport them via climate-managed vehicles to wherever Café Spice’s food is sold. The chefs and cooks on the receiving end then add the meats and vegetables.
As if all of Café Spice’s current ventures weren’t enough to fill Americans’ plates, in March 2011, Sodexo, Inc., a leading provider of integrated food and facilities management services in North America and Mexico, signed a 10-year master retail license agreement with the corporation to bring Café Spice food to Sodexo operations across the US, with Zaika making and delivering all of the food.
When he’s not on the road in the US or overseas, which is about 25 percent of the time, Malhotra and wife Lata enjoy dining at The Ritz-Carlton, Westchester’s BLT Steak, Red Hat on the River (big surprise!), and two restaurants in Hastings-on-Hudson: Harvest on Hudson and Buffet de la Gare. The couple also make time for Westchester’s summer music festivals and enjoy living in the little village on the banks of the Hudson.
Malhotra takes another sip of tea and smiles. “We were first-generation immigrants,” he says. “We didn’t have the money, the capital. So, God willing, we have made a mark for ourselves.”