I’ve been self-employed since I was 19 years old, working with credit card marketing, mortgage banking and debt and tax mediation. My wife and I were always interested in food, not just eating it, but looking at it from a different point of view. We had a successful mortgage business, and then once that kind of went away when the financial crisis hit, we said, “All right, what are we going to do next?”
In 2009, we opened Curry Up Now, the first Indian street food truck in California’s Bay Area. Today, Curry Up Now has come so far. We now have four food trucks, six brick-and-mortar locations (plus, franchising in the works), and two cocktail bars.
It has never been easy, especially at the beginning.
We started as a food truck serving things like burritos and tacos and quesadillas with an Indian street food angle, like putting chicken tikka masala and chana masala in a tortilla, and Indian toppings on a taco. We don’t like to use the word “fusion,” but we made it accessible. That’s kind of the soul of our food, but then the other part is the more traditional Indian street food and Indian platters and wraps.
We had no food background. We were stupid, we didn’t hire anybody from the food business to help us. We were just learning on the go for the first two or three years. We didn’t even hire a chef. We didn’t know how to price food. We didn’t have recipes, we didn’t know how to cook the food consistently day in and day out, and we didn’t have may places to cook. At that time, there weren’t that many commercial kitchens or food trucks. As the food truck scene started to grow, so did these kitchens.
There was some trial and error, but mostly, there was some idea behind the madness. We started out by having some friends over and creating some of the food items that are still on the menu today. They’ve evolved, but the soul of the food has stayed the same.
‘Baristas make really good bartenders.’ -Akash Kapoor, owner of Curry Up Now
Now, my office is right in our commissary kitchen. We have 30 or 40 items we’re developing right now. I’ll walk over there, we’ll create it, and we price it out and make a recipe and take pictures right there. We’re more organized.
We bought our second truck in 2010, our third truck in 2011, and then we decided to open a restaurant. The comfort level with the trucks was always there, since we would show up and there would be a couple hundred people waiting in line. We did really well, but it went away as more food trucks came on the scene. A couple hundred went down to 50. Then, the more locations, the more we diluted the brand a bit.
The restaurant was working, so we decided to open a second, and then a third. We decided to take that further by opening a bar in one of our restaurants. We had space, we had a liquor license. We thought, “There are no good bars in this area, so let’s try that.” And we did. And it’s been amazing for us.
In 2015, we opened another restaurant, our flagship that has 165 seats and a bar. Since then, we’ve also purchased one of our competitors so we’ve opened two more stores this year.
It does not get any easier. It’s not slowing down for me. With multiple locations, it’s really, really hard because at this point, my efforts go into building standards and building the brand and making sure that we are coming up with new menu items. I’m not at the restaurant. Sometimes I don’t visit a restaurant for three months, or even longer. I’ve got a team, but the struggles they go through, I go through them too, in a way.
‘That’s our mission statement, that we have to make Indian food a mainstream food.’ -Akash Kapoor, owner of Curry Up Now
It’s all about team building and recruiting the right talent so that they can handle what comes up. And then, business leaders get good at seeing where problems are going to happen, and hopefully you can stop them from happening or react very quickly. In the food business, when I see that the labor force is going down from 30 at a restaurant to 18, I can predict that a month later, we’re going to have no-shows and we’re going to have short-staffing issues and guests are not going to like us. That’s exactly what happens. That’s where I spend a lot of my time: analyzing the data and looking at what’s selling, market trends and pricing.
We’ve also hired some consultants for the bar. We’ve got a vision, but we’re not in the bar business. They built manuals for us and they still work with us, coming in every quarter to update and train and support. That’s one thing I’ve learned from them: They teach our bar program with their methodology to someone who, until yesterday, was a barista, and then they work with us for two months and they become a bartender. (Which is great because baristas make really good bartenders.)
This is all part of the goal. I call this our hyper-growth phase right now.
I really feel that Indian food hasn’t been done well in the U.S., or in all of North America, including Canada, where there are a bunch of Indian restaurants. We have this opportunity to change that and be the market leader to becoming a mainstream food in the U.S. That’s our mission statement, that we have to make Indian food a mainstream food. Mediterranean foods have become mainstream. They don’t even call it Mexican food anymore, as far as I’m concerned; it’s American. There are sushi places everywhere now. We want to have that. That’s what drives me.
Initially, we’re going to grow stateside, and then go international. Maybe we’ll even go to India one day, that would be amazing. If I can succeed in India, then I can succeed anywhere.