Alexis Sugrue’s T-shirt promised “Simple food. Endless choices.” Like the stylized elephant logo on her black ball cap and the cheerful step-by-step menu on the wall here at Bombay Bowl, the slogan could have been developed by a corporate branding office. (“All for me and naan for you,” read the paper sleeves for the Indian flatbread, browned in a conveyor-belt oven.)
Her patter sounded like it was developed for Chipotle Grill, then filtered through the Indian subcontinent.
“Would you like to make that a bowl, a plate or a roti roll?” asked Sugrue, ponytailed and pierced, as she served curried chickpeas and panini-pressed chicken sandwiches with vindaloo sauce from a steam table.
“What kind of protein would you like? Would you like to spice that up or down?”
Tucked between a strip mall Starbucks and a Jamba Juice, Bombay Bowl is one of a number of Indian restaurants whose owners are thinking big no matter how small they are. Borrowing the assembly-line format, customized service and chipper style of national chains like Subway, they plan to make dals, curries, chutneys and flatbreads into fast-food choices from coast to coast.
None see curry houses as their competitors.
“My competition is Panera, Qdoba and Chipotle,” said Amar Singh, owner of Bombay Bowl, which still has only one location. Sharing his vision are the owners of restaurants like Merzi in Washington, D.C., and Chutney’s, with two locations in Cambridge, Mass.
“We realize that some of this food can be intimidating to non-Indian consumers,” said Sanjay Kansagra, the proprietor of Chutney’s, where the slogan is “Savor the flavor.” “So we put them in control of their meal.”
The menu boards and signs at his restaurant, in a mall off Harvard Square, encourage customers to “make it a value meal” by adding a side dish of a steamed dumpling called a momo to a paratha wrap girded with mashed potatoes and peas.
Across the food court, customers lined up to get Subway value meals.
As his employees – one in a turban, the others in black visors, all wearing orange polo shirts with the smiling, lip-smacking lime that is Chutney’s logo – folded rounds of naan over chicken tikka, he talked about the commissary he planned to build to provide the food for a total of 10 Chutney’s.
Like many of the Indian entrepreneurs working in this segment, he conceived his business to satisfy a market need, not his passion for cooking.
“I knew I wanted to serve food that would taste authentic,” said Kansagra, who opened three franchised sandwich shops before turning his attention to Indian fast food in 2009. “I also knew that if I wanted to get American customers, the food did not necessarily have to be authentic.”
Willingness to embrace the inauthentic served the entrepreneur well as he developed rice bowls topped with cubes of curried cheese and “nanini” sandwiches stuffed with lamb seekh kebab.
Liberal interpretations of traditional foods also appeal to his customers.
“This reminds me of Wow Bao,” said one, Monique Bellefleur, referring to a five-unit Chicago chain that advertises “hot Asian buns” and serves breakfast bao stuffed with egg, bacon and cheddar.
Indian food, served fast, has been around since the 1970s. That’s when curry houses in larger cities across the United States began to serve steam-table lunches of lamb vindaloo, basmati rice and creamed spinach with cheese.
Buffet service allowed consumers unfamiliar with foods from the subcontinent to survey the offerings and serve themselves toned-down versions of provincial cooking from Kashmir or Andhra Pradesh. Restaurateurs could serve large volumes of lunchtime customers quickly.
These new restaurants are different.
“Indian entrepreneurs are now trying to serve the American mainstream, whatever that is,” said Krishnendu Ray, an assistant professor of food studies at New York University.
Some inspiration for these chains-in-the-making came from the subcontinent. Jumbo King, based in Mumbai, serves potato croquettes on hamburger-style buns at more than 40 fast-food outlets. Kati Zone, based in Bangalore, dishes up variants on Mexican quesadillas called “cheeserias” as well as masala-dusted French fries.
In the United States, kati rolls and other flatbread-wrapped foods have been popular for at least a decade. Paratha Junction in Jersey City, N.J., and the Kati Roll Co., with locations in New York City and London, are two of the quick-service restaurant companies that specialize in portable Indian foods.
Many of these newfangled foods are being built on bases of relatively authentic Indian flatbreads.
Merzi, one of these nascent chains, serves roti wraps, stuffed with “tandisserie” chicken, at its Washington prototype. (The menu translates the term as “tandoori-seasoned chicken cooked rotisserie style.”) Veda, with three locations in Toronto, recently introduced rice-and-butter-chicken-stuffed “curritos,” which translate as curried burrito-style wraps.
No matter how they label their menu boards, these places follow the same formula.
“We have to break down traditional dishes into gravy and protein components so that our guests can gain control of their experience and build their own meal,” said Singh of Bombay Bowl, who has an undergraduate degree in finance and a master’s degree in business administration. “It’s all about deconstruction. We have to deconstruct Indian food so that it can appeal to the mainstream public. With deconstruction, everything is possible.”
Customers like Sheila Ovenhouse, from Parker, Colo., a Denver suburb, follow menu instructions to build their dishes from unfamiliar ingredients.
“Otherwise, I’d be overwhelmed,” she said one recent night.
The menu has customers choose to have their meal in a bowl, on a salad or in a roti wrap, then “pick a healthy filling,” like grilled chicken or tofu. They then pick one of four sauces, including spinach and vindaloo, and one of four chutneys, including cool cucumber raita or a hot chili-lime chutney.
“Look at Chipotle, look at Subway,” Singh said. “What they did was create an assembly line, where you could watch other people’s food being made and direct the making of your own food.”
Last September, Chipotle Grill, which was built on Americanized Mexican foods, began applying that assembly line model to the foods of Southeast Asia. Their ShopHouse Kitchen, off Dupont Circle in Washington, serves rice bowls, noodle bowls and versions of the Vietnamese sandwich banh mi.
If Indian fast food is to reach a wider audience, Chipotle, with its quality ingredients and guest-defined customization, will likely prove the lodestar.
It would be easy to say that such developments dumb down Indian food, Ray said.
But ethnicity is no longer defined in opposition to the mainstream.
“A new Indian cosmopolitanism has emerged,” he said. “This new generation of Indians expects their customers to know what a dosa is. They expect their customers to figure out what a samosa is. They’re confident. They’re not embarrassed by their accents. They’re not embarrassed by their foods.”
“They’ve learned American fast food,” he added, “and they’ve made it their own.”