East India Company Restaurants - The Mehra Family
Your family has been in the restaurant business for over 50 years. How did it all start?
Anish: It was Dad who started it all. He came from India, trained as a mechanical engineer. But once he landed in Vancouver, he realized that he would have to retake some courses to be able to work in Canada. At the time, Winnipeg had the cheapest courses, so he moved there and while at school he worked in Delis and banquet halls to pay the bills. After he graduated, he started working for the city but it was too late; he had fallen in love with the restaurant industry. He opened Winnipeg's first Indian restaurant in the 60s and it closed soon after, people just weren't ready for it back then. So a few months later he opened a new restaurant that was a deli in the morning and an Indian restaurant at night. By then he had also gotten married to our mother and the two of them did everything in that place. Mom would give away Indian items back then just to get people to try them. The lunches kept the restaurant open and dad used to joke that a busy dinner would be 3 to 4 guests. Since then, we have grown to 3 restaurants, a line of cooking sauces and spices, and a family of 12 (kids and grand kids included!).
How did the move from Winnipeg to Ottawa take place?
Anish: That happened in 2002. At the time, we had 2 locations in Winnipeg that were closer together than they needed to be. I was about to graduate from the University of Guelph and had talked to dad about joining the family business. Our older brother, Sachit, and Dad didn't think it made sense to open a third location in Winnipeg at the time so we started looking in other cities. When they came to Ottawa, they fell in love right away. It was similar to Winnipeg in size and feel, had a strong-stable economy, and on their second visit, a location right off Elgin st had just come up for lease. We started renos while I finished up my degree and drove up every weekend to see how things were coming along. I remember graduating the first week of May and opening the restaurant the second week.
Nitin: The move for me took place a couple years after opening in Ottawa. I first came to Ottawa to attend the Culinary program at Algonquin and would work at the restaurant on the weekends. After graduating from the culinary and Sommelier programs, I went to Montreal for 2 years and then came back to attend Le Cordon Bleu. I graduated with le Grand Diplome and before I could get away again, Anish pulled me in and convinced me to join him out here permanently.
How did the Winnipeg clientele eventually support the first Ottawa location?
Nitin: I wouldn't use "eventually", the people from Winnipeg were supportive from the second we unlocked the doors.
Anish: Nitin is right, Winnipeggers were amazing. Our first day of business was a soft opening and we had about 6 tables for dinner that night. Most people who came in thought we were opening an antiques store. But then my brother and dad called a couple of their friends who worked in Ottawa (there was no facebook/twitter/instagram!) and all of a sudden we had all these people coming in that had been referred to us by their Winnipeg friends, or groups of 20 people with 1 Winnipegger in the middle of the table. They were amazing brand ambassadors for us. Honestly, That got us through those first few months as a new business.
Nitin: It hasn't really stopped either. We regularly get people in who are visiting from Winnipeg but wanted to come to one of the East India Companies in Ottawa because they love the Winnipeg one so much. But that might have something to do with the relationships Mom and Dad have built over the last fifty years.
Your whole family is involved in the restaurants and catering and you are the second generation. How does it feel to be building a legacy?
Nitin: It's strange, I don't think we ever thought of it as a legacy! You're making me feel old. Joking aside, its great to be part of something like this. I've gotten to be part of some real growth in the company. I mean, sometimes when you work a job, you come in, do your stuff, and leave; and that happens for years. Its part of being part of the machine, and that's fine. For me, I've gotten to help open up a new location, develop a line of sauces, meet buyers, go to trade shows, redesign packaging, and on and on. That's given me some real satisfaction to be part of something like that.
Anish: Its been interesting to be part of a business like this that has so much direct dealings with our guests no matter what your role is in the company. I have been met people's children, watched them grow, come in on dates, get married, catered a few of their weddings, and now I see them coming in with their babies. The business and we become part of many communities and we become a part of the history of those communities. It strange when you actually stop to think about it.
You now sell sauces at retail stores across the country. How did that come to be?
Anish: It actually started with selling spices. We roast and blend our own spice blends and for years people would ask mom and dad for a little bag so they recreate some of our flavours at home. For years it went on like this, but then about 12 years ago, we made some packaging for the spices and started selling them in the restaurants. The response was great and then Nitin approached Farm Boy about carrying the whole line.
Nitin: Yeah, Farm Boy was great when we first approached them. They were so eager to support a local business. They put our spices in all the stores in Ottawa. My contact there, Andre, also knew we were working on a Butter Chicken sauce and he really encouraged us to get it to market. Once we had a shelf stable recipe in place, Farm boy picked it up and put it in all the stores. Since then, we have been lucky to find some great people to help us and we are in Longos stores in the GTA and Save on Foods across western Canada. The restaurants are still our primary business, but the sauces are quickly growing.
When you aren’t busy with the restaurants, catering and now the provision of sauces what do you do for fun?
Anish: I’m a little confused, what do you mean by “when you aren’t busy with the restaurants?”? Truth be told this really is a hard one. I’ve got three little ones all between 1 and 8 years old, a great wife, and I do work many nights of the week, so it doesn’t leave much time for hobbies. I do like to collect autographs. I’ve got a Stan Lee comic book, William Shatner Wrath of Khan DVD, and a poster from Amitabh Bachchan (a very famous Indian actor).
Nitin: I collect Monopoly boards. I started about ten years back and I find a couple new ones every year. Aside from that, I’m pretty into my fitness. I love running and spending time in the gym. It really helps to clear my mind and focus on the rest of the day. I’ve also trained for and run 5 marathons, but its been about 4 years since I ran one. Aside, from that…I know we are both pretty big movie guys. We like to try and catch any new movies that come out.
What Ottawa based businesses have you partnered with over the years?
Nitin: Ottawa is a great community for small businesses and the nature of our industry encourages partnering with others. Most recently, we did a fundraising dinner for a scholarship we set up in Dad’s name at Algonquin college. Obviously, Algonquin college was part of it, but we planned the dinner alongside the boys at Beyond the Pale. It’s the second event we’ve done with them and both Shane and Rob are amazing to work with there. We have also worked with Split Tree Cocktail on some items, Dominion City Brewing, and Lansdowne Park on a butter chicken poutine for Redblacks games. Right now, we are providing a venue to one of our servers who organizes Comedy Shows in the Westend. His name is Tash Naved and with him we are hosting about 6-7 comedy shows at our Bells Corners location. We try to do it on the first Saturday of every month with breaks around summer and Christmas.
Anish: Being an Indian Restaurant, we have also been pretty involved in partnering with the South Asian Community. For a lot of organizations, we have provided meeting space, hosted functions at cost, and even sat on the board to help them out. We did all we could to help organizations like the Indo-Canadian Ottawa Business Chamber (ICOBC) and the South Asianfest get off the ground. We also try to sponsor organizations that provide a service to the community, including Mukul Hindi School, Durga Mandir, and the Canterbury Cricket Club.
How is partnering with local businesses important to you?
Anish: No one does it alone. As much as we like to think that, it is the relationships that we have made over the years that have helped us grow. For example, when Dad started, things were really tough because he didn’t have the funds to buy all his groceries. The rep from Coca-Cola came in, provided Dad with a free fridge and filled it with product at no charge. At the same time, the manager of Russell food in Winnipeg let Dad buy the equipment he need interest free for the first 6 months. This gave him the breathing room to get started. We try to do the same now; like I mentioned before, we have tried to give organizations free space to meet and get off the ground. Aside from that, we also try to give guidance where possible. We met the boys opening Les Moulins La Fayette just before they opened and they recognized us from the Restaurant. They asked if we wouldn’t mind offering some guidance as they was their try at running a restaurant related business. We were happy to come in before and after opening and give suggestions where possible.
Nitin: As for the partnerships with other businesses, we love them too. It keeps us connected to the community and the industry. It’s a great way to get new ideas, learn new techniques, and often it leads to bigger and better things. You never know when the chef you work with at one event, leads you to your next big thing.
Your staff is an extension of your family and some of your staff have been with you since the beginning here in Ottawa how does that play a role in your business?
Anish: We are blessed to have such a great staff. Honestly, this industry is demanding and if we didn’t have a crew that could handle it, we would be lost. Most of our long term staff have been with us for 10 plus years. I grew up with some of the chefs and floor managers at the Winnipeg location. Everyone was uncle or auntie so and so. At the Ottawa locations, many of our staff has been with us for years and in a couple cases almost decades. As they support us and the business, we try to support them. A few of our staff came from overseas to work here and for them we have tried to help them get settled here and bring their families. Most of them now have careers, homes, and their families. One of our managers, Bernard, started with us as a dishwasher, moved to kitchen helper, then server and floor manager. He found a love for hospitality working here and now he is a very well respected Sommelier in the Ottawa community and is our manager at the downtown location.
Nitin: I see some of our staff more than I see Anish and I think of them as family. The mantra I try to live by is that if I can do something to make your life better, I will. And I don’t draw the line with work life, I’m happy to be there for staff members with supporting them in their personal lives. If that means going to a mortgage meeting with you, sure; or if you need advice about something, I’m happy to help tell you what I know. I also like some of them more than I like Anish.
Anish: Whoa! Let’s keep this above board. I also want to mention something here. Nitin is modest but I think people should really know how giving he is. A few years back, we had an employee who had been born with some medical issues. When he started working for us, he was on the list waiting for a kidney, but just trough working with him, we knew it was a difficult for him on daily basis. Nitin really wanted to do something to help, so he went and got himself tested and it turned out he was a match. The next thing I knew, Nitin was scheduling a few weeks off so that he could go in for a kidney transplant operation. He never tells anyone about it, but I think its amazing that he could be so selfless. That employee stayed with us for a number of years and was a good friend.
The food is authentic but you also have ceremonial artifacts and displays from India some of which are hundreds of years old. What inspired you to have these items as décor in your restaurant?
Nitin: We are following Mom and Dad’s lead on this one. We realized that of course people are coming here because the food is excellent. However, it is important to create the full experience for guests. We want people to feel like they are in India and have the best possible experience. We are always trying to get better. In fact, over the past two years Bernard has been updating our wine list and we were recently awarded a Wine Spectator Award of Excellence for it.
Anish: When it comes to the artwork in the restaurant, we wanted to showcase some of the amazing cultural pieces from around India. Many people love the large pieces that we have throughout the restaurant, but my favorites are the marble work with mother of pearl inlay. There are a few of them in the downtown location, but they are hidden and you really have to look for them.
Do you have any exciting plans in the future for East India Company?
Nitin: There is always 5-6 things on the go. For example, I’m working with our co packer on some hot sauces, Indian Curry pastes, and 1-2 new sauces right now. At the same time, we are getting ready for the Restaurants Canada food show and are going to be selling our current sauce line up in large format jugs for other restaurants and hotels. And then just this week, we started working on a fundraiser for January to help raise funds for the scholarship we set up in Dad’s name at Algonquin College.
Anish: On the restaurant end, we just wrapped up wedding season and I’m in the process of booking Christmas parties and next year’s weddings. Big Picture wise? The reality is out of 100 possibilities only a few turn into actual business prospects maybe one works out. That being said, we are always looking for that next location or talking with a grocery chain about picking us up or who knows, may be a food truck. Stay tuned.