This is Rohan Aggarwal, the co-owner of Queens Bully. A first generation Indian American, Rohan was born and raised in Queens, New York and was immersed in the food industry from a very young age. Growing up Rohan’s father owned a chain of Indian restaurants, so from the time he was five or six years old, his weekends and summers were spent working there. He started out cleaning dishes and busing tables, then doing deliveries and, as he got older, worked his way up to serving and bartending. Although he admits that there were periods of time where he disliked the work, he says that he was drawn towards a career in the restaurant industry because “it runs in my blood”. It’s a business that he’s always known and had a passion for and despite the difficulties, he loves it. It was this passion that lead him to ask his father if he could take over the lease for one of his restaurant locations on Queens Boulevard that had closed down two years beforehand. In 2016, Rohan and his friend, Suraj Patel, took over the space and created Queens Bully, a multi-faceted barbecue restaurant that was designed specifically for the neighborhood to love and enjoy. Their focus on building a culture where everyone is treated like family has turned Queens Bully into a neighborhood hotspot where different people of different ages and different ethnicities all feel at home.
Rohan studied hospitality management in college and after spending a year in India learning Indian cooking techniques and helping to operate his family’s restaurant there, he returned to the U.S. and started working full-time for his father. He was placed at Devi, a standalone location that wasn’t part of the restaurant chain, and began running it’s operations. It was there that he saw a need for a caterer with unique offerings rather than your typical Indian food and expanded the business into catering. However, as Rohan came up with new dishes that tied Indian flavors into other cuisines and curated menus to reach a wider variety of customers, he started getting pushback from his chef. The chef had his own way of doing things and didn’t want to get onboard with these new ideas. Since Rohan had only had front of house training in the past, he wasn’t able to communicate on the same level with the chef and make him understand what was needed and why. He realized that his lack of cooking knowledge made him dependent on the chef for the business to function, which wasn’t something he felt comfortable with, so he enrolled in the Institute of Culinary Education. When he graduated from culinary school in 2014, he continued running catering operations for Devi, despite the fact that they had to close the physical location in 2015. He would rent out a commissary kitchen and have the chefs from Devi come in and cook, piecing together the orders as they came. However, the catering business didn’t last long without a standing space to cook from. It was during this time that Rohan and Suraj had started brainstorming about opening their own restaurant. They both lived in the neighborhood and saw it undergoing rapid gentrification and felt that it was needing something different for the community to enjoy. And since they had the space where they envisioned it existing, they started developing their business plan. When Rohan approached his parents with his plan, they were hesitant at first. They didn’t want him to be in the food business because they knew how hard it was. But once they saw his motivation to run his own place and prove that he could do it, they agreed to let him take over the lease for the space. After a few months of construction, Queens Bully officially opened in July 2017.
Rohan decided to focus Queens Bully around barbecue as an homage to his father. As an immigrant to the U.S., his father was always fascinated with barbecue as a cuisine and planned to open up an American barbecue restaurant at some point in his career. Unfortunately he never got around to opening the concept so Rohan wanted to do it for him and create a place that his father would be proud of. He and Suraj collaborated with their chefs to make barbecue the base of the menu but made sure to incorporate different flavors and put their own twist on certain recipes to showcase the diversities of Queens. Although they have their top selling items that they can never take off the menu, they do change the menu about twice a year to incorporate seasonal items. A lot of the inspiration for new menu items comes from Rohan or Suraj- from places that they’ve traveled or restaurants where they’ve eaten- but they’re also very open to suggestions from their team. Whenever anyone comes up with an idea, they’ll take it into consideration, play around with it and do it as a special one night to see the reaction from customers. If it goes over well, they add it to the menu. For Rohan, one of the best parts about opening Queens Bully is that there are no rules on the menu. So even though their focus is barbecue, their menu is so broad that they can get away with serving any sort of item, which Rohan loves because it allows him to be creative and play around with a bunch of different flavors.
The name Queens Bully refers to Queens Boulevard, which a lot of Queens natives call “Queens Bully” for short. Rohan says that he and Suraj used the term a lot when they used to park in the area and take the train to wherever they would go out in the city or in Brooklyn. Over the years, they started questioning why they were going out in other boroughs rather than staying local and realized that the problem was finding a place near them in Queens that served good cocktails and beers, had great food and a nice ambiance. They realized that other people in the area must be having this same issue and that there was a really big area of the market being missed. So when opening Queens Bully, they really tried to focus on creating a space in their neighborhood that incorporated all of those different factors that they craved from other establishments. Combining those ingredients together has developed a unique culture that makes them stand out from other restaurants. They’ve built a welcoming environment by treating each customer as if they are a part of their family and designing a restaurant layout that works for a couple that’s going out for a date night as well as a bunch of guys who want to watch the game during happy hour. They’ve been able to create an atmosphere that works for any group of people because it’s very laidback and comfortable and doesn’t try to define itself as a specific establishment. It’s all about what the customer is looking for from the experience and working to meet those expectations. For Rohan, running a business that appeals to and meet the needs of so many different people is a very fulfilling feeling. Having created a neighborhood hangout that attracts such a wide variety of men and women shows him that they have created a change in the neighborhood and that people appreciate them being there.
Although customers love the culture at Queens Bully, Rohan says that the toughest part of the business is creating an environment that your employees trust and getting your employees to see the same vision that you do. Rohan had never created a team culture for employees before Queens Bully so he’s dedicated a lot of time to working with each member of his team so that they understand where he sees Queens Bully going and how he or she is a part of that growth. He wants his staff to be excited about what they’re doing on a day-to-day basis and continue learning, innovating and creating to improve their current operations. In regards to the future of Queens Bully, Rohan is clear that Queens Bully will only be one location, since it was built specifically for it’s neighborhood and just that space. As Rohan says “this concept was strictly made for these four walls”. However, once things are running smoothly with Queens Bully, he does plan on starting a larger hospitality group with Suraj. Seeing himself and his team become leaders in the hospitality industry and create wonderful concepts for people to enjoy is what keeps him motivated. They already have a few concepts that they’ve brainstormed and have been working on but they’re focused on finding the perfect fit location and neighborhood-wise. Rohan says that above everything else, what he’s learned from Queens Bully is that neighborhood matters and if you’re not creating something for the neighborhood, it won’t work.
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