This is PriaVanda Chouhan, the owner of Desi Galli, a fast casual restaurant that specializes in Indian street food. What makes Pria such a unique business owner is that before Desi Galli, she had no experience in the food industry (other than a few years working at McDonald’s). Her parents moved from India to Montreal, Canada in 1973 and at that time, there wasn’t much variety in regards to Indian food. There were only one or two Indian restaurants in the city and they found that they didn’t have traditional Indian flavors and weren’t as authentic as what they could create themselves at home. So growing up, food was a major part of Pria’s life as lunch and dinner were made daily in her home. However, it was typically either her mother or her sister cooking. Pria would always help in the kitchen, peeling potatoes or washing dishes, but she hated the grunt work of food prep and had no interest in learning how to cook since someone else in the family was already doing it for her. It wasn’t until she moved to New York and got married in 2009 that she decided to to learn how to cook. She and her husband were gaining weight eating out at different restaurants and they never felt satisfied with the Indian food that they tried because it never tasted like the food at home. So she taught herself to cook watching Food Network and shows like Rachael Ray and calling her mom, her sister and her mother-in-law for advice on creating different dishes. At the time, she says, she didn’t have any bigger picture in mind other than gaining “basic life skills”, but after trying in vain to get a job during and after the recession, she was frustrated and decided to create her own destiny. So she created a menu based on the dishes that she and her husband grew up eating and in 2012, opened Desi Galli.
Desi Galli was not an overnight success. Although Pria had been cooking for two to three years at this point, starting with simple recipes and then building upon that foundation, she had issues transferring her recipe knowledge from feeding 3-4 people to mass production. In the restaurant she had to do a lot of taste testing to make sure that each ingredient was portioned correctly so that the dishes weren’t too salty or too creamy. She also had never been in charge of a kitchen so with the help of her first employee (who now manages her Lexington Avenue location), they figured out what equipment and set up was needed to run a line as they went. In the first year, her husband managed the restaurant while also working at his full-time job so that he could help Pria as she was learning the different areas of the business. Despite the insane hours she and her husband were working and the threat of bankruptcy looming over her head, Pria worked through her mistakes and was able to start listening to her customer’s requests. Their menu started out as mainly Indian street food because she wanted that “tapas feel” of having a little bit of everything that she and her husband enjoyed. But she noticed that people were coming into the restaurant and asking for traditional dishes, which they didn’t offer. She realized that she had to “ease the customer into the food”, i.e. let them try the traditional, staple items first and then educate them about chaat and kathi rolls. So she changed the menu to incorporate the classic dishes that customers were looking for as well as heavier items for dinner, such as biryani and naan. These changes helped in stabilizing the business and allowed her to get a better understanding of how a fast casual restaurant needs to run.
Looking back Pria says that she may have jumped into the restaurant industry a little too quickly. She was offered the space for her restaurant in February and opened in May and admittedly did very little research into the business beforehand. However, she knew how to run a business from her time working as a Regional Sales Manager for a clothing line in Canada (where she managed the province of Quebec and had 250 employees working underneath her) and she trusted her instinct that this was the right move. Now she has a handle on how the industry runs and is ready to focus on improving her business model and expanding it. One of the biggest things she’s concentrated on at the moment is educating people about her food. She said people will sometimes tell her that her food “doesn’t taste like India”, which she tries not to take personally as all of the recipes for her menu items come from somewhere in their family, with Pria adding her own spin to it. However, she attributes this comment to the lack of understanding that there are different interpretations of Indian food, which are often based on where your family is from and the way you grew up eating a specific food. For Pria, Desi Galli is her interpretation of what she and her husband grew up eating. But one significant thing that does impact the taste of her food is Pria’s commitment to cutting back on heavy creams and oils that are traditionally found in Indian food. After her weight gain the first few months in New York, she started educating herself on what she was eating and became much more conscious of that fats and oils that your body can’t digest and make you feel bad. Therefore, when creating the menu for Desi Galli, she tried to keep items lighter and healthier, which benefits customers and also allows her to stand out from the heaviness of her competitors.
Desi Galli is a unique business. The name itself comes from the restaurant’s structure: desi meaning “one from the Indian subcontinent” and galli meaning “alley”, so “Indian alley” because the space is so narrow. It makes it seem like you’re going to a hole in the wall, which Pria plays into with her delicious and unique menu items like chicken tikka sliders or their famous desipoutine (french fries with tikka sauce and grated paneer). But more than being known for their unique food, Pria also wants to be known for being a “no pressure” restaurant where people can sit and have a cup of chai or eat a snack without feeling like there’s any rush. In New York she found that there weren’t many places to eat, drink and hang out as compared to Montreal, where cafes are very common. So she created Desi Galli to be a cafe-esque space with outlets everywhere so that customers are encouraged to hang out and do work, read or just chill. She incorporates this European vibe to remind customers to take some time alone to slow down and relax when things get hectic. For Pria, keeping customers happy is the most rewarding part of the business. Whether they’re eating in the restaurant or ordering catering, she loves hearing that her customers love her food or got so many compliments at an event that they’re recommending Desi Galli to a friend for catering. It gives her the belief that customers are becoming more open-minded and willing to step out of their comfort zone when you create a good product.
Although the unpredictability of fast casual restaurants is one of the most challenging parts of the business for Pria, she’s looking forward to continuing to expand her business. She now has a second Desi Galli location in the East Village and both locations are doing very well. She says that she’s open to reinventing menu items if she sees that demand again from customers but her current concentration is continuing to do what she’s doing and do it really well. She did face some sexism when she first started out, specifically from other male business owners in her area but now that she’s established herself, she feels that she is part of a larger community that’s working to diversify the New York food industry.
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