NEW WINDSOR, N.Y.—Three generations of Malhotras can be credited with playing an instrumental role in putting Indian food on the map in America, most recently through the ubiquity of their retail brand Cafe Spice.
The family has been an institution in New York since 1970, when patriarch Mulkraj Malhotra left the engineering profession to start a spice trading business after immigrating to the United States.
At a time when Indian food in America registered merely as a blip characterized by overly spicy and low-quality buffet offerings, Mulkraj dreamed big. He imagined Indian food in every train station—Indian food everywhere—just like in the U.K., where chicken tikka masala was once dubbed “a true British national dish” by former foreign secretary Robin Cook.
Mulkraj’s dream was infectious for his family. His son, Sushil Malhotra, followed in his footsteps, and Sushil’s son, Sameer Malhotra, now 37, has done the same.
The family has made it their life’s work to make Indian food accessible in this country, and they can pretty well say they’ve achieved it, with distribution in places like the American heartland, where no Indian food previously dared to go.
Unlike most Indian food brands in America, Cafe Spice is unique in that it is authentic Indian food designed for a Western market. As America’s taste for ethnic foods developed over the decades, Cafe Spice was there to satisfy our cravings for flavors like rich coconut curry, golden turmeric, sweet-and-sour tamarind, pungent green chiles, nutty cumin, and sweet cardamom.
Today, Sameer runs what could aptly be described as a curry empire from his 50,000-square-foot manufacturing facility in New Windsor, New York. He works together with his wife Payal, the company’s vice president, and his father, the financial partner and mentor.
A framed photograph of Mulkraj Malhotra graces the entryway of the executive offices. “Grandfather was the early visionary. He would be so excited if he were around today,” said Sameer.
The upstate New York facility turns out Cafe Spice-branded prepared meals like Channa Masala, Chicken Vindaloo, and of course, their most popular seller by far, Chicken Tikka Masala.
The vibrant dishes packed inside bright packages can be found in grocery store refrigerators across the nation, including at ShopRite, DeCicco’s, Gourmet Garage, HEB, Fresh Thyme, Natural Grocers, Price Chopper, Whole Foods, and Earth Fare. The company expects to sell more than 2 million retail units this year, and this is just one piece of the business.
Many of the same curry dishes they sell in retail are also sold in bulk, where they are served to consumers in hot buffets as a value-added feature at supermarkets, as well as at corporate and other institutional cafeterias.
Expanding the company’s offerings, as well as deciding how to handle incoming inquiries for Cafe Spice to manufacture prepared food for private labels, are among the company’s most vexing tasks these days, according to Sameer, who estimates his business is growing at a yearly rate of 15 to 20 percent.
The privately held company declined to disclose its annual sales numbers, saying it did not want the publicity, but a Bloomberg news article put the company’s yearly sales at $20 million in 2012.
A back-of-the-envelope estimate based on the current retail sales numbers suggests food service sales make up a significant part of the business.
Supermarket food is not highlighted very often, because it’s a relatively small category, but the 8.9 percent growth of fresh, prepared food in the grocery aisle is faster than any other segment in the food industry, with the exception of online, according to Technomic, a research firm.
Sameer said the company has developed a specialized distribution channel that allows it to handle fresh prepared food. A nitrogen flush packaging system gives the product weeks of shelf life in the refrigerator, and items shipped to the West Coast are shipped frozen.
Moments That Matter
How Cafe Spice transitioned into its retail and food service business can be attributed to a series of great luck, or genius on the part of Sushil, depending on how you look at it.
It all started with Sushil’s restaurant business. After working with his dad importing spices, in 1976 he opened a fine dining restaurant on Park Avenue in New York named Akbar. After struggling for a few years, the restaurant became an overnight success with the help of a favorable review in The New York Times.
Sushil then moved on to open two very successful restaurants by the name of Dawat, one in New York and one in Westchester County (where the family lives), as well as a number of Cafe Spice Express spots.
Dawat gained fame when the family won the endorsement of Madhur Jaffrey, who was at the time like the Julia Child of Indian cooking. Both Sameer and Payal credit Sameer’s mom for this break.
Jaffrey was reportedly timid about the idea of associating herself with Dawat. Despite Sushil’s great success with Akbar, a celebrity attaching her name to a restaurant was a relatively new concept at the time.
As the story goes, Jaffrey had invited the family over for dinner, but while cooking had gotten distracted and left out one of the spice ingredients while accidentally adding double of another. Sameer said his mom identified the mistake right away.
“Your palate is exactly on,” Jaffrey told Sameer’s mom, according to Sameer. “I want to work with the restaurant as long as Mom oversees the day-to-day kitchen.”
The family made it so, and Dawat went on to be a smash success, attracting famous diners like Michael Jackson, Madonna, and Anthony Hopkins. The young Sameer, who as a child had slept on a banquet in the back of the restaurant, and later worked as a coat check boy, was nearing college age.
“Fine dining was really exciting,” recalled Sameer, who thought he would just keep working there after school.
But his dad had another idea. Dawat was the result of 35 years of hard work, Sameer remembers his father telling him. “The real joy is in starting something from scratch and watching it grow,” Sushil told Sameer. The sentiment was a precursor of what was to come.
As Sameer headed off to Babson College in Wellesley, Mass., for entrepreneurial studies, Sushil was having trouble at home getting visas for enough Indian chefs to make the quality and authentic Indian food that characterized the family’s brand.
Sushil’s solution was to open a commissary to make the foundational sauces and marinades for the cuisine, and then supply it to his restaurants where any cook could heat and serve.
His commercial kitchen in Long Island City was operational when he saw a newspaper article about a new Whole Foods location that had opened up at Columbus Circle in New York City. The article said Whole Foods was serving hot Indian food daily in its in-store buffet.
When Sushil arrived, he saw the cooks struggling to keep up with customer demand and the complexity of the cuisine. He handed them a business card and told them about his commissary.
It took about two days for Whole Foods reps to show up in Long Island City to see the facility, said Sameer. The buyers ended up calling their supplier of natural chicken on the spot to extend a line of credit to Cafe Spice.
It was the expansion into more Whole Foods locations that provided the impetus for the company to make the move to New Windsor about eight years ago, where a much larger, former USDA-approved sausage factory got a curry makeover.
Realizing the Dream
When he was in college, Sameer dreamed of opening up Cafe Spice Express locations in every college town in the country.
Indian food is a cuisine that is not easily replaceable if you are used to eating spicy, flavorful food, and Sameer found living without it “eye-opening.”
After Cafe Spice entered the retail market, however, the capital cost of opening quick service restaurants lost its appeal and Sameer dropped that idea.
There are seven Cafe Spice Express locations in operation today. Many New Yorkers will know of the one at Grand Central Terminal (a potent realization of his grandfather’s dream), and there are locations at Roosevelt Field Mall, MIT, Georgia Tech, and so on.
Sameer explained that college students nationwide still aren’t without their curry fix, because Cafe Spice food is sold in convenience stores on college campuses, where it can be taken back to the dorm and heated. It’s also offered in cafeterias nationwide through a partnership with institutional food provider Sodexo, which supplies colleges, corporate offices, hospitals, and museum cafeterias.
For the latest generation of Malhotras, manufacturing is a better solution than running a large restaurant chain, because it’s easier to scale and much more efficient than brick and mortar.
Sameer even jokes that Cafe Spice has grown the Indian food category in the United States so much that he welcomes competition, saying it only helps growth. Now that is confidence!
The Chef Behind Cafe Spice
Cafe Spice is on a mission to make Indian food accessible to Americans, and there could be no better choice than chef Hari Nayak to make that happen. He has been there every step of the way to make sure each dish’s authentic Indian flavors remain true, even in larger batches.
Spices do not scale uniformly, says Nayak. The hands-on chef says he knows when he sees the vat how much turmeric or saffron to add to a 2,000-pound batch. Once perfected, it can be standardized as a recipe.
There are no shortcuts. You need fresh ginger and garlic—not processed and not pureed. Local produce is favored when in season, and food is free of preservatives. Saffron needs to soak in hot water to bring out its flavor before going into the Saffron Rice.
The chef also needs to understand details such as whether the chilies should be sliced, diced, or minced, because the way you chop them affects the level of heat in the finished product. Cafe Spice does it in-house to make sure it’s right.
Products indicate the spice level on the package, and Nayak says this works for their customers. The company doesn’t get complaints about spiciness, even though there is a good, authentic kick to the flavors.
And when it comes to spices, Nayak says whole is always the freshest, and that is why he insists on grinding spices. It is a full-time job for two people, the “heart and soul of the kitchen,” and a corner that will not be cut for the sake of saving a dollar, says Nayak.
Nayak has a gentle, humble demeanor that touches the heart. It is obvious that he loves his profession.
When growing up in Udupi, in south India, Nayak developed a fascination for Indian street food. He attended hotel and restaurant management school, and then worked for the prestigious ITC hotels in India. From there he went on to attend the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York, where he graduated at the top of his class.
He was consulting for institutional food service provider Sodexo when he was discovered by Cafe Spice.
Nayak’s five cookbooks tell the story of his career beautifully.
His first, released in 2007 to critical acclaim, was a fresh take on his native cuisine. “Modern Indian Cooking” deconstructed Indian food to make it look more like Western cuisine, reflecting what he had learned at culinary school.
Nayak soon got the desire to research his own cuisine more. “So I started diving deep into learning more about traditional Indian cooking, and suddenly I started falling in love with learning more about it,” he said in a recent interview. “My Indian Kitchen,” his second book, is an in-depth look at Indian cuisine.
“Easy Indian Cooking” came next, followed by “The Cafe Spice Cookbook.”
Nayak’s next cookbook, to be released in the fall, will be called “Spice Trail.” It showcases the global recipes he most loves to eat, such as tacos or fried chicken, using the Indian spices in his pantry. “The chef in me is being very creative,” he said.
“Spice Trail” coincides with an exciting development at Cafe Spice—their recent expansion into Mexican and Thai food options.
Sameer Malhotra, co-owner of Cafe Spice, said the company is working to address menu fatigue by offering its customers a choice of ethnic cuisines.
Nayak is up for the challenge. He said the Thai coconut curries are a healthier alternative to cream-based dishes like Chicken Tikka Masala.
He is also working on a South Indian curry dish with coconut and more offerings from his native south India.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this article misspelled two names, and the name of chef Hari Nayak’s new book. The correct names are Sushil Malhotra and Mulkraj Malholtra. The name of Hari Nayak’s new book is “Spice Trail.” Epoch Times regrets the errors.