The moment you walk in the door of Little Kabab Station in Mount Kisco, the warm and rustic atmosphere and tantalizing mixture of spices take you on a journey 7,400 miles or so away to India, where owner and creator Bonnie Saran was born and raised.
Saran’s mom, Ritu, greets you (if you have the pleasure of meeting her during her yearly visits) as you cross the threshold into this little world and beams with pride for all of her daughter’s many accomplishments—especially since, she says, “Bonnie was a very mischievous and naughty child. I seriously worried what she would do with her life.”
Ritu no longer has any need to fear. Saran, who lives in Bedford Hills, has created a “Little” empire with her three successful businesses: In addition to her flagships, Little Kabab Station and Little Spice Bazaar, her newest creation, Little Crêpe Street, opened in December. And the road to success has been quite a journey for her.
Saran was born in 1975 in the town of Devlali in India, but her family never stayed in one spot for long since her dad was in the Indian Army. When she was 15, her mother started a small catering business out of their home, and Bonnie (whether she wanted to or not) was enlisted to help in any way needed. At that time, going into the restaurant business was the furthest thing from her mind.
Instead, she went to school in India to get her Masters in Finance and Marketing. One day in the early 1990s, she was waiting at a traffic light when she saw an advertisement from a company in the United States looking to promote and manage a multi-city tour for the UK pop group Whigfield
“Being from an army background, I always was a part of a lot of events being planned, so this opportunity sounded very interesting to me,” says Saran, 37. Stopping at a local Internet café, she quickly drew up a proposal. She ended up getting the job, and it became a springboard for a marketing career.
“Coca-Cola was one of the major sponsors in India at the time,” Saran explains, “and they were one of the main sponsors for the Whigfield show.
The head of marketing for Coca-Cola saw me handling all aspects of the show and said to me, ‘After the show finishes, why don’t you come and handle promotions for us?’” Saran was then hired to do multi-city promotions and product launches for the beverage company, followed by work for such high-profile companies as General Motors and PepsiCo. In fact, in 2000, she became one of the first people in India to open an event-management company, which she named 4 City Events.
Everything, she says, was going along smoothly at the time—her business was very successful and her social life was booming. Then suddenly, her world turned upside down with the sudden death of her father, whom she describes as her “hero,” from a heart attack.
“I remember sitting in my office just before he died,” Saran says. “He called me and told me to come to the airport to pick him up. But when I called my grandparents’ house a few hours before I was set to pick him up, no one was home. One of the helpers in the house gave me the news and said, ‘Your father is no more.’ I just could not believe it. I mean, I had just spoken to him.” Saran says she and her father always joked around with each other, yet, during their last conversation, her father “was very emotional” and told her, “You know you are a very good child.”
At the time of her father’s death, she had been living with her parents, despite the success of her business. “I never really worried about paying any bills,” she says. “Everything was taken care of.” Suddenly, though, “the whole responsibility of the family came down on me and forced me to grow up literally overnight.”
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Needing to get away, Saran asked her brother-in-law, who was also her partner at 4 City Events, to run the business “for a few months” while she took a trip to the United States. Previously, an acquaintance of Saran’s who owned a group of Indian restaurants here had asked her to explore the possibility of working for him.
“I never took the offer very seriously, but I was not in a sane state of mind, and I just wanted to move and get away. In India, there were constant reminders of my father passing away, and I wanted to be in a different environment.” True to his word, the acquaintance, Girdhar Gopal, hired her to run operations for his companies, and she moved to Greenwich, Connecticut.
As her involvement grew, so did her interest in opening a small Indian restaurant of her own. “People don’t call in for Indian food on a regular basis,” she says she thought at the time. “They call in for Chinese or pizza.” Saran wanted to change that, so when a spot opened up in Mount Kisco in 2010 that would be perfect for such a restaurant, she was ready to leap at the chance. The only problem was that there was zero money.
One possible source of financing, however, was open to her: During the years she worked in India and the States, she had paid for a house for her mother in Goa. Everyone thought she was crazy to sell this home during the height of the recession, but she “went with a gut feeling” and used some of the money from the sale to open Little Kabab Station. “My mom was actually very supportive of this decision,” Saran says. “She believed in what I was doing and told me, ‘Don’t worry. If you have this gut feeling, go for it.’”
Saran had no professional training in cooking, but she had learned many recipes from helping her mom over the years with her catering business, and her time consulting and running operations for larger restaurants, she says, prepared her for the challenge of running her own place. Her baby, Little Kabab Station, opened in February 2011, with Saran as co-owner and one of the chefs. Despite the restaurant’s tiny size—it seats just 12—it took off quickly and enjoys high customer loyalty. “Some customers come in everyday for lunch, and, when it gets busy, they write up their own checks and leave the money on the table, because they know how much it will be.” Celebrity fans include Martha Stewart, Michael Douglas, the Clintons, Chevy Chase, and Ryan Reynolds and Blake Lively.
In February 2012, Little Spice Bazaar opened two doors down as a market for the exotic spices many of Little Kabab Station’s patrons asked about. These two booming locales were surely enough to keep Bonnie busy, but, when the cigar shop between the two closed, the wheels in her head again began to turn. She wanted to open a place offering something not found in the area—crêpes. Her latest outpost, Little Crêpe Street, opened on December 6 with its tagline, “Pardon my French!”
Perhaps not surprisingly, Saran is a larger-than-life personality. Tall in stature and sturdy in physique, with very short black hair, she is usually found in jeans and her chef’s coat. She interacts with her customers like they are all close friends or family members, even making a curious journalist feel at home and giving samples galore.
She lives with a Lhasa apso named Poopie—the only relationship she has time for, given her demanding schedule, she insists.
“Every year on my dad’s birthday, I go to the temple and do a prayer for him, and, one year on my trip back home, I stopped in this pet store to cheer myself up a little. I saw this dog who was so cute. I lifted him up and played with him, and then put him back, but he just kept looking at me. I was originally going to name him Wachovia, because I actually used my mortgage money that I was carrying with me to buy him.”
Her typical day consists of waking up around 8 am—not by an alarm clock, but with a kiss from Poopie—and heading to work from about 9:30 am until 11:30 pm, seven days a week. She meditates every morning, but “I’ve never asked God for anything. The only thing I say to God everyday is, ‘thank you,’ and that’s it. Restaurant or no restaurant, money or no money, I am extremely lucky to have my health, food to eat, and a roof over my head.”
When asked about her future plans, Saran, who loves to travel, simply hopes to take some time off someday for a vacation. “I can’t see that happening any time soon, though, because I am always at my job. I can’t even travel to Chappaqua because I just don’t have the time.” But you can tell from the big smile on her face that she loves and enjoys every minute of it immensely.
She has, she says, had offers to sell her three spots as a franchise, but, so far, she’s balking. “My biggest joy is creating something out of nothing,” she says. “As long as I can do that, I am very happy.”
Cat Zambito is a freelance writer who also works as a voiceover artist. She lives in Mamaroneck with her husband and son.