Vimala Rajendran is the owner/chef of Vimala’s Curryblossom Café in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. She has been a longtime activist for progressive causes including grassroots media, international peace, and stopping domestic violence. In 2015, Vimala’s business was selected from over 30,000 applicants as the winner of a small-business Chase Mission Main Street Grant® for $100,000, and the story was featured in Forbes. Vimala is currently at work on a book about a lifetime of food and community-building adventures.
Building Community by Showing Up and Sharing: Mentor Engine’s Interview with Vimala Rajendran of Vimala’s Curryblossom Café
Cooking for her family and circle of close friends in Carrboro, North Carolina, Vimala Rajendran started a tradition of community dinners; their popularity grew and eventually gave rise to her restaurant, Vimala’s Curryblossom Café in Chapel Hill. Since its opening in 2010, the restaurant has won awards and recognition every year, not only for excellent food, but also for promoting dignity among its team members and patrons through an “everybody-eats” policy. How did the restaurant gain success, and what are the values and cultural customs on which it operates? Owner and chef Vimala Rajendran explains.
Vimala, how did this all begin?
I had always loved food and cooked it well, but I never thought I would be a restaurant owner; I never thought I would be a chef. My friends would often say that I should start a restaurant, but I had never had any culinary education or worked in a restaurant. When my ex-husband lost his job, the women in my neighborhood asked me to cook a meal; we all gathered around the table after the meal and talked about how this could go to the next level. Together, we came up with the idea that I would start a take-out in the neighborhood. People could come with baskets full of containers and take home food for their dinner, making a contribution into a jar. That was how the dinners at my house began. They went on for about 18 years before we started the restaurant.
How many people came for food at the beginning?
Early on, we had maybe ten or twelve people, with a five-dollar contribution per person. I would look at $60 at the end of the day and think, “Wow, that’s a lot of money,” because I had spent about $60 for the food, and I’d be so excited because we had recovered the cost. From there, it grew and grew. Someone in the neighborhood kept a phone list of about 27 people. Two or three years after that, I became a single mom with three children and got my first email address, which was email@example.com.
What is a curryblossom?
“Curryblossom” was a word I made up, and looking back, I’ve gone back and given it a meaning. The curry plant is aromatic. It can become a tree related to the citrus family, and its blossoms are very rare. They bloom at night, and very rarely. Now, I have advanced degrees, but I had not landed a job, and I always felt like I was far away from where I was born, without a career to show for it. I just felt like I had not had a chance to blossom, so the word “curryblossom” had personal meaning for me, and eventually it became the name of the restaurant.
What led to your starting the restaurant after 18 years of cooking at home? Did you have a realization? Did something happen?
It was actually kind of a disaster story. My current husband and I had been married about five years, and we had acquired a lot of equipment that we kept in the basement of our three-bedroom home. One day, after we had just come back from India, I sent an email to my then 1500-person list, saying, “Back from India, have great ideas. I’m going to cook a meal.” Back then we had an arrangement with the manager of a local coffee shop where we’d bring the food, set up a little shop in the yard, and sell the food. We suggested a donation amount, and we didn’t sell any drinks; all the drinks, the beer and the other drinks, came from the coffee shop. One Friday afternoon after my husband had driven to the coffee shop with all the food, my phone rang; it was the Orange County Health Department, informing me that someone had forwarded him my email, and that I didn’t have the necessary permit to serve food at the coffee shop. I asked how I could get a permit, and learned that even though we were raising funds for a nonprofit, we needed to have gotten a permit in advance, so we couldn’t serve the food at the coffee shop. So we brought the food back, and my son stood at the coffee shop, telling everyone to come to the house, where we served the food anyway.
And that led to your starting the restaurant?
The next morning, Saturday morning, my husband and I were at the local farmers’ market, and we talked to several people, especially folks at our favorite farmer’s stand. Standing beside me was the owner of a sandwich lunch shop that existed in the space where we are now. They were moving forward into a bigger place up the street, and we decided we would sign on to the rest of their lease. In the meantime, the restaurant space had been repossessed by the bank.
That must have presented quite a challenge.
When we came in, there was no landlord. We felt like squatters. The entire courtyard was empty, everyone was leaving because it was mismanaged, and the bank had repossessed the space. We had paid some amount for leasehold improvements, as we say in the industry, which included some equipment—some ovens—and all the equipment subsequently started breaking, so this was another of our challenges.
But the greatest challenge we ever faced was having the dinners at the house shut down. We overcame that challenge and started a restaurant.
That was during a recession, wasn’t it? It couldn’t have been an easy time to get funding.
Yes, it was in 2010, a very low time in our economy. We knew we wouldn’t get any loans from banks, because I didn’t have a business history to show. But as someone pointed out, “If anyone has social capital, it’s you.” I love that phrase, social capital. The friendships I had created, the farmers with whom I had built relationships, the conferences in which I had participated about sustainable food systems and how to grow the food shed locally—it all began to pay off by people stepping forward and saying, “Would you like a loan?” Some gave us interest-bearing loans, and some gave us interest-free loans. Altogether, within about five days, we got pledges or checks for about $80,000.
So it came together with a lot of community help, but you had never worked in a restaurant. How did you organize and establish your procedures?
My daughter, who lived in Chicago at that point, came back here. She is a developmental facilitator and expert who actually goes into organizations and helps them grow. She came and led workshops where we would learn from each other. Some people in the workshops had worked in restaurants, and they joined our team and taught me a lot, such as how to turn on a commercial oven, how to turn on the hood and the lights in the restaurant, and how to organize a walk-in refrigerator. There was a lot to learn, so many details. And then, most of the chefs on that main drag of Chapel Hill and Carrboro—and I can name them all—stepped forward and said, “Welcome to Franklin Street!”
That is indicative of a real community.
Yes, I admit when I don’t know something, and I try to actually involve the community. When the local chefs welcomed me, I would ask them where they got their ingredients, and from which farmers; I just ask a lot of questions of so many people who keep instructing me to this day. I’m always learning, and I also say to my staff, “This is hard work. If it wasn’t, I’d be doing it all by myself.” You know, there’s enough of an ego there; this is my cuisine. I am a skilled prep chef, and I still need to have other people chop. I have a callous on my hand because I use a knife very fast. But you just cannot do it alone.
What do you think builds and drives that kind of community?
I often say that the beginning of building community is that you show up. If I am told that I have social capital, it’s because I have gone around in the community living a transparent life and showing up. And as you show up, you show up with empathy, gentleness, mercy, grace, peace, and humility. Of late, I’ve also been saying, a righteous pride in knowing who you are and believing in yourself. Then you have so much to offer. You’ve shown up with all of that. And that’s how I expect everyone in the workplace to show up.
So this business really manifested through your relationships and the values of your heart.
Yes, I call those values the fruit of the spirit—generosity, kindness, love, gentleness, and mercy. What is fruit, in community living? It is gathering of the community around the table over delicious, wholesome food that is good for the people. With regard to our business, we made sure that we became a triple-bottom-line business. The three P’s of a sustainable business are people, plan, and profit—in no particular order—and we make sure that the people we value include the invisible ones, like those whose touch came early on, where the food was grown. Many important ingredients, like the rice, the cardamom, the cinnamon sticks, the cloves, the black pepper, come from all over the world, into the restaurant. Then there’s local produce, and of course gasoline, which we get from parts of the world where oil is drilled or mined. We are so mindful of all of that.
And then we respect the people who handle the food in the restaurant by paying them a higher wage, and by having a culture of such respect and dignity, and also mutuality, where there is no hierarchy in the kitchen. Our dishwasher is paid even more than someone who works the front of the house. The tips are all shared evenly, and we also start at a living wage for anyone who walks in the door.
How else do you eliminate the hierarchy that typically exists in restaurants?
I respect the people who work with me, and I call them my co-workers rather than saying that they work for me. I also give them the highest possible human dignity—teaching them to prioritize their own wellness, and to prioritize themselves and their families before work. We have allowed all our workers to have flexible scheduling, by prerogative. They can choose when they can work and when they’re available. Every week they have a choice. This means we have intentionally helped people with children to be home during dinner hours so they can read to their children, put them to sleep, and be at home.
How does this affect your team’s commitment to you?
We have a lot of worker retention, and we have tried intentionally not to hire people who are coming just for summer jobs, because our workplace requires a lot of training—a lot—since this is a cuisine that is not so familiar to a lot of people. I have made up some of the recipes, and how they are to be taught and made, and sometimes the finished product loses a little bit of my direct teaching; it’s almost like a telephone game. But I’m open to the idea that it can be better. We are organizing our workspace around dignity and liberation and joy.
Every aspect of your story—the community dinners, your relationships within the community, the dignity with which you treat your team—reflects a culture of sharing. Did your background influence this?
Yes, yes. You know, I come from a background where we share everything we have, so there is that communal feeling. You hold your lunchbox in the schoolgrounds if you’re eating outside. It is customary for us to just pass the lunchbox around and say, “Would you like some?” So everybody partakes in everybody’s lunch, and everybody’s lunchbox goes around. And we’re excited to see what other people’s parents have packed. And I think out of those experiences, it’s not just about sharing. I’ve learned how to make food that was not like the food cooked in my own home, because there is such a conglomerate of cultures. So in Bombay, which is a cosmopolitan place, if I sat next to someone from a different region of India than my parents, I learned to make the food that was in other people’s lunchboxes. That’s why the menu at Curryblossom Café is so eclectic.
How do you think the simple act of sharing a meal—eating with others—helps build community?
In the sustainable food movement, we’re all concerned about what comes to the table, where the chickens have been raised, and how and what the chickens ate. But we are not so much concerned about who comes to the table, and I’m trying to break that barrier down. Breaking bread together brings down barriers. We can actually have conversations about hot topics like racism, classism, and the hierarchy in the workplace. So my co-workers all get to sit and eat in the dining room. And when they have family, I relieve them from the kitchen to go sit down and eat with their family, because it’s good for those who handle the food and do the labor with the food also to have a chance to eat at the table.