Rashmi Bhattachan was looking forward to dancing in the parking lot to live music and a fashion show and an abundance of Himalayan food giveaways, for the 10th anniversary of her Northeast Minneapolis, restaurant, Gorkha Palace, but instead…well, you know. The only crowd restaurants can hope to attract right now is crowd funding, not triple digits in your parking lot and restaurant.
"We’re doing takeout only, for the safety of our employees," she says. "I kept hearing of restaurants closing because an employee got sick."
And to be quite honest, her takeout business has been going better than expected. She’s seeing some customers picking up items like Chicken Tikka Masala or Paalak Paneer or MoMo, steamed pot stickers filled with vegetables or meat, , three times a week. Sales are similar to last year’s, even with the elimination of the lunch shift and indoor dining.
Summers are traditionally slow, Bhattachan says, because spicy food is more in demand during the winter months. Sales, especially in the first two months of the shutdown, were strong, but the absence of alcohol sales has hurt. Plus catering has evaporated as well.
One of the advantages of her organic, locally sourced meals is that they’re not easy to make at home. Most of us can manage to cook a decent hamburger in our home kitchen, but duplicating the spice-levels and complex blending of flavors found in authentic Himalayan food is better left to the pros.
To that end, some customers have suggested they sell their sauces. It’s an idea she’s considering, starting with their unique pickles and radishes. There are five co-ops in the area, plus three to four Indian grocery stores, she says, and none are carrying a Nepali version of those two items.
Bhattachan, who grew up in Pokara in Nepal, learned the hospitality business from her grandmothers, both of whom loved to cook and entertain, and her aunt who had a famous hotel in Khara, west of the capital, Kathmandu. "There’s a hierarchy there in Nepal, but here (in the U.S.) I saw a pizza manager sweep and mop the floor and I thought my aunt would never do that," she says about one of her first restaurant jobs here.
She teaches her staff to treat the guests like royalty. "Our success depends on them coming back," she points out. "We don’t have the budget for ads, so word of mouth and online reviews are tremendously helpful."
Her U.S. culinary career started with her selling curries and MoMos at the Mill City Farmers Market. When she and her chef business partner, Sarala Kattel, opened Gorkha Palace at a busy corner in NE Minneapolis a decade ago, there weren’t several high-rise apartment buildings going up across the street from her. She has a master’s in business management, which has come in handy as the restaurant business has become even more complex in the midst of a pandemic.
And while Americans are frustrated with our different degrees of sheltering in place, in Nepal where the rules are stricter, the situation is bleak. "They can’t go out—only for essentials," she says, and no planes are flying. The reason, she explains, is that the country doesn’t have enough hospitals to handle an uptick in cases.
When things become safe, she says, she’s anxious to go back and visit. The country is known for its "naturally gifted scenery," and hospitality, but not its infrastructure, she says. In the past when she’s been back to visit, she’s always had to limit her vacations, but in the near future she’s hoping to spend the time necessary to visit the base camp of Mount Everest.
But that’s not happening for a while, so she’s currently engrossed in plans to keep her restaurant afloat through takeout, perhaps even opening a satellite version in South Minneapolis, and working on bottling proprietary items, such as pickles and sauces.
In September, instead of the dancing and celebrating she envisioned, Gorkha Palace offered 20 percent off all orders for one week and numerous giveaways to loyal customers, such as gift cards, and a drawing for a gift basket with items from local businesses around her.
And while some bemoan the loss of indoor dining, Bhattachan says the kitchen staff is happy with the direction takeout has taken their paychecks. Since takeout eliminates the middleman, the tips are coming directly to the kitchen workers.