Indian Flavors

Padam Sapkota (left), manager and part owner of Taj of India. “I like Harrisonburg. ... It is good town to start a small business like a restaurant ... customers here are very loyal,” Sapkota said.

Ashok Kunver’s love of cooking began when he was just a kid. He watched his father work as a server for Sun-N-Sand, a five-star hotel on the sandy beaches of Mumbai, India. Then, his father moved to Albany, New York where he began his family’s legacy, opening their first Indian restaurant. Ashok’s passion for food slowly blossomed as he and his family opened businesses across the country, finally settling in Harrisonburg. Ashok and his wife began the businesses in Harrisonburg on their own, while caring for Ashok’s elderly parents. His father passed away just last year. 

“I followed my dad’s path,” Ashok said. “I like tasty food … I’m very picky.” Ashok’s father started out working for smaller street-style vendors in India.

After just one year in New York, the Kunver family, including 13-year-old Ashok and his two brothers, moved to California where they lived for about 16 years, and worked in the restaurant business. They then traveled to Hartford, Connecticut where they opened their first Taste of India restaurant, and where Ashok’s two brothers still live. Then, Ahsok, his wife and children moved to Flint, Michigan before the Friendly City. 

“I came here 10 years ago. I opened … Taste of India restaurant on University Boulevard. That restaurant my wife runs.” Ashok says. “Mr. Padam runs [Taj of India] … I just control the food quality.”

“I’m a people person. I love people. I think thats the main reason I like restaurant business,” Sita said. “A lot of people don’t like to, you know, to talk with each other. But you know, I’m not that kind of person.”

Kunver and Sita have personability in common.

“I like to be surrounded by people, so restaurant business is the perfect business for me,” Ashok said in agreement.

Padam Sapkota also values the support of the community. He found his business partners in Harrisonburg, helping the Kunver family open Taj of India in September 2016, where Sapkota is part-owner and manager.

Sapkota pointed in the direction of the bar where Ashok sat. From the square table in the front window of Taj of India, his eyes sparkled and a genuine smile appeared on his face. 

“To do the restaurant business I was inspired by him ... I learned everything from him,” Sapkota said.

Sapkota met Ashok in Harrisonburg when their families met together in the community for holidays and religious festivals like Thanksgiving and Holi, the festival of colors, traditionally celebrated in Indian regions and throughout the world. Sapkota immigrated to Harrisonburg from Nepal, where he was previously a high school chemistry teacher. 

After receiving admission to graduate schools, Sapkota realised a path toward higher education was not his, because it didn’t offer him the lifestyle he wanted. As a father of two daughters and a devoted husband, he wanted to spend more time with his family. Luckily, he stumbled upon the perfect opportunity when he began his business career with other devoted parents.

“We want to raise our children surrounded by good people. We’ve got three kids,” Sita said. “It’s less traffic, it’s less stress … You can survive very well here so we like that the most. Easy life, so we can spend time with the kids, you know?”

Because in Connecticut Ashok would often work from 8 a.m. until the following morning at 2 a.m., they decided to create a restaurant schedule in Harrisonburg to foster a work-life balance. 

Sita arrives at work at 9:30 a.m. She and her staff work busily in the kitchen for the next hour and a half on the buffet so that at 11 a.m., they can welcome customers.

“[It’s] my hobby to cook and stuff like that, so when I don’t have a chef there I go back too, I don’t mind,” Sita said.

 But from 2:30 p.m. to 5 p.m. the restaurant closes, and by 9 or 9:30 p.m. they head home for the night.   

“Here we don’t have like long hours you know, now we take a break, we go home, stay with the kids,” Sita said. “It’s very easy, good family life.”

Harrisonburg’s way of life takes a more casual tone as it sits in a more rural portion of Virginia, and Sita feels there’s not much traffic or stress. Sapkota is taking advantage of opportunities that exist in this community setting to further business.

Among laughing children and vibrant celebration, Sapkota passes out menus and coupons to passers by. 

“Right now I’m focusing to the county area,” Sapkota said. “There are a lot of wine festivals, international festivals, craft festivals, a lot of festivals in the surrounding area like Broadway, Bridgewater, Dayton.”

Sapkota also donates food, and gives gift certificates to schools and churches, sporting events and even to other businesses like radio stations. In the future he wants to become more involved with the Harrisonburg community outside the restaurant.

“I like Harrisonburg to live. It is good town to start a small business like a restaurant ... customers here are very loyal,” Sapkota said.

Taj of India sees lots of lots of customers from JMU as well as locals, who turn into regular customers. The businesses are spurred on by discount opportunities. Students receive 10 percent discounts at the lunch buffet and 15 percent discounts off normal menu items. There is also a 15 percent discount for public servants such as veterans and police officers upon showing valid identification. 

In addition to a robust community of consumers, the Downtown Renaissance representatives, including Executive Director Andrea Dono, contribute to the restaurant’s success. When she passes by the restaurant, she will say hello and point out small things to help fix or strengthen the business, and provide positive feedback. 

“Sometimes the buffets, when the food is cold, we’re busy running here and there … ‘Excuse me, the food is cold, I’m good but I just wanted to remind you,’” Sapkota said.

Dono will make suggestions about how to better promote the success of the restaurant. If customers can’t see that Taj of India is busy, they may be less likely to eat there.

“We put the customers in the back area during the dinner because it’s cold. [Dono] told me to put the customers by the window. So we are busy but the people do not see we are busy,” Sapkota said. “Customers sit by the window so other customers see you’re busy, otherwise even if you are busy, in the back nobody sees.”

It seems this advice is working well, because both restaurants receive a host of support and attendance across the multicultural Harrisonburg community. 

“You know all the international people, because those are the people who like to have different authentic cuisines. I’m a people person, so I love to be surrounded by it,” Kunver said.

A certain few Indian dishes stand out at the restaurants. Chicken Tiki Masala, Tag Vindaloo, Momo and Goat Curry are the most memorable. Because of Ashok’s family background experience as a cook for many years, he dictates all the food recipes at both Taste of India and Taj of India. All the spices are made from scratch, and Ashok personally trains the secondary staff in the kitchen. 

In the kitchens at Taj of India, a knife quickly cuts through cumin. Small cracking noises pierce the air as cinnamon sticks break in two. Green and black cardamoms sit whole on the counter, the next spice in line to prepare for customers that day.

“Here, like the chicken tikka masala, when you go to the D.C. area restaurants, you won’t like it because my recipe is a little different than other recipes,” Ashok said with a laugh.

Contact Emma Friedman at friedmej@dukes.jmu.edu