At last count there were 33 Indian restaurants in Manhattan, the smallest but most iconic of New York City's five boroughs. The owner of one of these restaurants - the Mirchi - is Indian-American entrepreneur Ranbir Bhatia, and he is our guest in this edition of New American Voices.
Ranbir Bhatia worked in many restaurants in Delhi, Bombay and New York before opening the Mirchi on a broad avenue near the southern tip of Manhattan three years ago. He says many things needed to fall into place before he could do so. "You have to have the right place in mind, you have to have the right concept in mind, you have to have enough of funds to run this business," he says. "And another thing is that you've got to be married to the business. You cannot run a business by remote controlling it. So you've go to be involved, you've got to know almost every aspect of the business, I would say, before you can get into the business."
As to the finances of starting up a restaurant in Manhattan: that, too, was a hurdle not easily overcome. "I don't own the property, it's a leased space, okay, so we pay rent, and then basically the furniture and fixtures and kitchen and all the other stuff - to open a restaurant like this from scratch you're going to need at least half a million to three quarters of a million dollars," Mr. Bhatia estimates. "And then the banks are hesitant to lend you money initially, before you start the business. Once you have some equity and once the business is running for at least a year or two, then banks are ready to lend you the money - that's when you don't really need the money."
To attract a clientele, especially in Manhattan, amid the glut of Indian restaurants there, Mr. Bhatia had to develop a specialty, as it were - something to distinguish his restaurant from the rest. He chose as his logo the mirch, a long, red, hot, chili pepper.
"I would say that we are a little unconventional kind of an Indian restaurant, not the usual kind. Even the New York Times said we are breaking the same-old, same-old Indian mold," says Ranbir Bhatia. "We specialize in more of Indian street food, instead of trying to do a very fine dining cuisine, which most of the other Indian restaurants are doing. We are trying to do something in the middle, neat and clean, reasonably priced, and good food. As you can see," he says with a gesture, "it's not very formal kind of dining, we have an open kitchen, nice bar, and we have a café outside."
Mr. Bhatia says he opened the restaurant because that's all he knows how to do. He has worked in restaurants all his adult life. Back home in Delhi he attended catering school for three years. He worked in such well-known places as the Intercontinental Hotel in Bombay, the Sheraton in Delhi. Because of his experience, while visiting a brother who was living in Canada in the early 1980s, he received several offers from restaurant companies in the United States, one of which then sponsored him for a visa. That was eighteen years ago.
Based on his experiences in this country in the years since, he believes people coming to settle in the United States should have realistic expectations. "First of all, people come over here, they think money grows on trees. It doesn't. You have to work," he says emphatically. "Yes, there are opportunities, everybody who wants to work, there are opportunities for people to work, but it's not easy. It's not that you can just come over here and you sit down and you start making money. You have to work hard, like you do need to work hard in every part of the world. So one should not be expecting too much when you start here. It's all determination and hard work, I would say."
His own hard work here began with waiting on tables. This was quite a come-down from the job he had back home in India as a food-and-beverage man for a large hotel. But, he says, it has paid off. "I was determined, I said I'm going to make it, and I would say I kind of made it. I'm comfortable, I have this restaurant, I have a house, and I have a nice family, so I'm living a nice comfortable life."
Ranbir Bhatia has spent all his eighteen years in the United States in New York City. "You won't believe, whenever I go out of New York, I love the atmosphere, the openness of other cities, like Washington, but there is something that always brings me back to New York," he points out. "I would say it's the melting pot over here of all the different cultures, all the different religions, all the different communities of the world. And you name anything, anything and everything is available over here."
While he fits quite comfortably into his life in America and in New York, Mr. Bhatia says that like most first-generation immigrants, he continues to feel a deep connection with his native country. "You see, I was born in India, spent almost 30 years of my life in India before I came over here, so my roots are basically in India." he says. "Though I'm a citizen of this country, I don't think my heart… I don't think I can ever become American, in the sense that my roots will still be… I will be saying I'm an Indian-American. And again at the same time, I'm an American." But with or without American roots, Ranbir Bhatia, proprietor of Mirchi, one of New York City's dozens of Indian restaurants, is very sure how he feels about the United States. "I'm ready to do anything for this country," he says.