Restaurateurs Deal with the New Normal

Khabar Magazine. June 2020.

The relentless march of Covid-19—and our measures to contain it—have ravaged the restaurant industry. From reinventing themselves and staying relevant to protecting customers, employee interests, and managing their suddenly shaky finances, here’s a look at how some eateries in the Atlanta area are coping with the effects of the pandemic.

The impact of the novel coronavirus on the restaurant industry has been devastating. When diners canceled reservations and events indefinitely, turning to their home kitchens, restaurateurs struggled to acclimatize to the unpredictable environment. In March, as shelter-in-place orders were issued all over the U.S., restaurant sales plummeted, and many Atlanta area restaurants were forced to take immediate action. While most places closed their dining rooms and switched to a take-out only model, some feared for their staff and decided to halt operations.

Giving back to the community

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Restaurants wasted no time in helping the community in the best ways they could. From giving employees cash advances and free meals, to donating food to low income families and first responders, many South Asian restaurants in the Atlanta area participated in initiatives for charitable contribution. The Walia Hospitality Group—composed of Masti, Café Bombay, Ashiana, and Signature Ballroom—sent meals to hospitals, police, and fire departments. They also participated in a Free Meals food drive in partnership with Global Mall, offering 1000 free meals a day for nine days, to those in need.“We are struggling as well, but we are blessed to have the logistics and something to give back. We wanted to give a sense of hope to people who need it the most,”  says Ricky Walia, the group’s chief operating officer.

Managing a financial crisis

Executive Chef and Chief Chaiwalla Meherwan Irani continued to offer takeout for two weeks, before closing all his restaurants, which include Chai Pani and Botiwalla in Atlanta, as well as MG Road and Buxton Hall Barbeque in Asheville. “We had to figure out how to make the new model safe for our staff, as well as our guests. So, we took a month off to set up the kitchen for social distancing and do takeout safely.”

Irani’s number one priority was his employees. Instead of laying them off, he furloughed everybody, so they could still keep their health benefits through the employer. It also allowed the staff to save the benefits they accrued, such as paid time off, vacation days, etc. “We have always had an emergency fund for our restaurant group, in order to help our staff in financial emergencies, where they don’t have credit card or other resources,” says Irani. Chai Pani’s staff quickly organized an auction fundraiser in early April, extending personalized experiences, such as dinner for ten cooked by Chef Daniel Peach at a private home, photography lessons, cocktail and bartending lessons, and much more. Around $20,000 was generated through the fundraiser and distributed to employees to help pay bills between the time they were furloughed and unemployment payments started coming in, which takes about a month.

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The Small Business Administration received a record number of applicantions for Economy Injury Disaster Loan (EIDL) and Paycheck Protection Program (PPP). Archna Malhotra Becker, the force behind Bhojanic restaurant, catering, and food truck for 23 years, applied for government aid right away, and was approved. However, she decided not to use the grant as it was too complicated. “The rules don’t make sense for restaurants!” she claims. “The PPP loans require you to bring back 75 percent of the workforce and use the funding within eight weeks. How can I hire 75 percent of my employees and still keep them six feet apart? Some restaurants only have 6-foot hoods, making it impossible to distance the cooking line,” she adds. Additionally, Becker found the program required owners to do a lot of paperwork, and there were heavy penalties for making mistakes.

Murugesan Perumal, the owner of Chennai Express, reopened his locations in Alpharetta and Norcross after roughly two months, on April 27. Though all shopping malls in Georgia were closed as per the mandate, Global Mall—where one of his restaurants is located—remained open as a community center. Perumal applied for the PPP loan but it was not enough to meet the expense of rehiring his employees and paying thousands of dollars in rent. “The numbers don’t add up. It is a one-time payout that is less than my one month’s rent. What am I to do while the situation persists?” he asks.

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Meanwhile, Walia still awaits payments for his loans that were approved weeks ago.

Innovating in times of need

While restaurants are operating at a fraction of capacity, they are looking at other revenue sources. Bhojanic already offers prepacked ready-to-serve meals through the online grocer, Subziwalla. Bhojanic is now offering pickup at its catering kitchen location on Lambert Drive, and drops off pre-ordered meals at different neighborhoods around Atlanta on different days of the week.

Since home cooking started trending mid-March, Irani has seen a threefold increase in sales of his Spicewalla Brand that sells herbs, rubs, and spice blends. Chai Pani also created new packaging, labeling, and branding for their prepared heat-and-serve meal options, marketed as Chai Pani Take Home. These curries, lassis, and chutneys are already available online and will soon be at brick and mortar grocery stores around Atlanta. Also, they are launching a virtual grocery store where patrons will be able to order staples such as milk, eggs, rice, and lentils, along with dinner.

Technology has allowed the world to stay more interconnected than before, and because of that we have been able to unite, connect, and handle this pandemic in a way we wouldn’t have been able to before. Another initiative Irani started is free cooking demonstrations on Instagram Live, called Chai Time. “It helps keep the brand alive, keeps me in the kitchen, and interact with the audience. It’s not just entertainment, it’s human connection!” he adds. Viewers can watch Irani via Instagram Live @MeherwanIrani every Wednesday and Saturday at 4 p.m.

Reopening for dine-in

On April 23, Georgia Governor Brian Kemp issued an executive order for ‘Reviving a Healthy Georgia’ with a rollout plan to reopen sectors of the state’s economy in response to Covid-19. Beginning at midnight on April 27, restaurants and dining services could reopen if they chose to, but needed to mitigate the exposure of Covid-19 to their customers and workforce. A list of precautions and guidance was given out to restaurants that included food safety, cleaning and sanitizing, employee health, and social distancing.

However, most restaurant owners found the reopening to be announced “too early” as the numbers of positive cases were still rising. The staff did not feel comfortable returning to work. Many older and vulnerable employees would prefer to receive unemployment benefits rather than put their health at risk for very little money.

Breakdowns in restaurant supply-chain prevented restaurants from being fully operational. Bhojanic’s Becker pointed out that she could not source basic supplies like toilet paper, sanitizing wipes, bleach, gloves, bags, and thermometers. Many of the products come from China and demand has exceeded supply. Her other concern is that the guidelines don’t make practical sense. It is not possible to keep social distancing in the kitchen while offering a full menu, or to serve diners from 6 ft. away. Reducing dine-in capacity means fewer tips for servers and higher overhead costs for the restaurants. As it is, breaking even in the restaurant business is hard.

Other restaurants decided to wait for a few weeks, and open for Mother’s Day weekend following the revised safety precautions. At Chennai Express and Masti, employees are wearing gloves and masks. There are hand sanitizers and napkins placed at every table, and plexiglass barriers between the staff and customers. More stringent health etiquettes are being enforced and staff temperatures are being monitored. No more than ten people are allowed per 500 sq. ft. of space and each family has to sit at least six feet apart. Party sizes are restricted to six people.

Even with all these measures in place, the biggest issue is that customers don’t feel comfortable going out. As long as there’s a health risk, the majority of people are not going to feel secure sitting at a restaurant, no matter how far apart the tables are.

Indian weddings take a big hit

Some Indian restaurants have another adversity to deal with as the majority of their business comes from catering. Even during the best of circumstances, restaurants have lean profit margins. Perumal emphasizes that most of his business comes from catering to weddings, parties, and large events. His two restaurants only work as the face of the company, attracting diners to learn about the South Indian vegetarian food he offers, before booking big orders.

“Starting March 9th, all my events started getting cancelled, including the 2020 Masters, weddings, music tours, festivals, parties, and corporate events,” says Becker. Walia’s Ashiana and Signature Ballroom, which are mainly event venues, have been closed since mid-March as well.

It is unlikely that big weddings, corporate gatherings, or social events will make a comeback any time this year. If at all, party sizes would be reduced and social distancing measures will cast an abnormal vibe. Walia mentioned that the Atlanta History Center (where he was scheduled to cater a wedding for 300 people) is now allowed to have 120 people in banquet style setting, with four people per table, to be served family-style. The staff would be required to wear gloves and masks, perhaps even the guests too. The iconic Indian weddings with their lavish buffets may become a thing of the past.

The future of dining out

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Irani is hopeful for the future. He thinks there’s only so much home cooking one can do. “Eating out is a big part of our culture, but people don’t eat out just because they want the food. They enjoy the experience of being in a restaurant, in the company of their friends, and getting pampered with good service,” he says. At some point, he feels, when people figure out that it’s safe for them to go out, they will go back to restaurants. They will return to places that comfort them, take care of them, and make them feel safe. He is committed to staying open as a take-out restaurant for as long as it takes, even if it is six months or a year from now.

Chai Pani restaurants are reopening a week at a time starting mid-May, offering takeout only. They have converted the dining room for preparing food and packing to-go orders. Except the staff, no one will be allowed inside the building. Orders have to be placed online and paid for contactless, either online or through a swipe pad located outside the restaurant, to avoid interaction. They have also marked parking spots with numbers, and spaced out pickup lines.

Becker will continue to offer take-home meals prepared in her catering kitchen, which is well spaced out, safe for employees, and well sanitized. “I don’t want to put my own family, my employees, and customers at risk by opening for dine-in,” she confirms, looking at a long-term business strategy that could last a few years. She doesn’t plan to reopen Bhojanic until there is testing, contact tracing, medicine, or immunization.

Issues with takeout and delivery

While takeout and delivery have become mainstream sources of income, they are not enough to sustain most restaurants. Ninety percent of people order food through third party companies, such as Uber Eats, Grub Hub, Postmates, or DoorDash. According to its website, Uber Eats charges restaurants a 30 percent fee for delivery and 15 percent fee per order for pick-up, unless a restaurant negotiates a different rate. “The margins are way too thin. We were spending 30-35 percent more in food cost, and not making any profits,” says Walia. He continues to stay open to support his staff, as the majority of them live paycheck to paycheck. Restaurants recommend customers order directly through the restaurant websites or by calling, so that businesses are able to keep more of their profits.

Perumal wants to keep his restaurants open for takeout but continues to struggle with managing the books. “Once I account for employee salaries, rent, utilities, food cost, third-party fees, etc., I can’t even make takeout profitable,” he says. He has hired only one employee per location to take phone orders, cook, pack, and serve. “It is the only way I can help the staff and the mall survive. But if there’s no business, I will close permanently,” he adds.

~ Written for and published by Khabar Magazine. All rights reserved.

From Le Cordon Bleu to the Cafeteria: Mihoko Obunai Is Changing School Lunch for the Better

Chowhound. May 2020.

In Japan, school lunches are part of an overall education. Students are involved in serving wholesome menus to one another, eating together in classrooms, and cleaning up after themselves. There are no big kitchens or cafeterias with different menu choices. Everyone at school eats the same meal, like one family. This is the same vision Tokyo-born Chef Mihoko Obunai has for children in the U.S.

Continue reading on Chowhound

Serial Entrepreneur and Restaurateur Ebony Austin Talks About Crisis Management

Cuisine Noir Magazine. April 2020.

As a serial entrepreneur, Ebony Austin knows a thing or two about business cycles. “I am confident we will be ok,” she says after closing her new College Park restaurant for a few weeks during the COVID-19 crisis. The restaurant opened in November 2019 and has seen growth every month, until recently.

Growing up on the west side of Chicago, Austin helped her mother run a taco restaurant. “She was very happy to serve her community and there were always lines out the door,” she says about how her mother instilled the values of entrepreneurship and resiliency in Austin growing up.

Austin worked for several years in corporate America before setting out to open her own businesses. She served as a corporate specialist and business development manager at Campbell Soup, Godiva, and 1-800-Flowers. After successfully starting a real estate business, a transportation company, and a nonprofit, Austin partnered with a friend to open an upscale restaurant located near Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta Airport.

 Putting Community First

“I wanted to be in a location where I can serve the demographic and the community,” Austin says. She searched for the perfect place for over two years until she found the current spot in College Park, Georgia, which has a number of Black-owned businesses so that she could cater to the community as a whole, including customers, workers and kids.

Food at Nouveau Bar and Grill
Photo credit: Dan Carmordy

For Austin, friendly service and giving back takes precedence when running a business. Each month, the restaurant gives out free dinners to medical professionals, writes checks to area schools, collects toys for the holidays and offers discounts to residents.

To be successful as an entrepreneur, Austin recommends hiring a consultant to “teach you what you need to know, rather than learning by trial and error.” She also emphasizes that business owners need to be more hands-on, at least in the initial stages of starting a new venture. “As the owner, I do everything from training, serving, even cleaning. I learn everything and help out wherever needed,” she says.

Taking Time to Recalibrate

The concept of Nouveau Bar and Grill is “new and modern” as the name suggests in French. Though the menu reflects familiar flavors such as chicken and waffles, turkey burger sliders, jerk chicken and lamb chops, the dishes are served as a renewed spin on the comfort foods. “When you visit Nouveau, you are greeted with eminent ambiance, amazing live music, excellent service, outstanding cocktails, and exceptional food,” tells Austin.

To address the challenges her restaurant is in facing in the current environment, Austin is using this time to think about what she and her staff can do differently, and better, once they reopen. She ensures that they will likely work harder to do more marketing and provide consistency in food and service, as well as ensure the safety of customers. “We are all facing the same challenges,” she refers to the hard-hit restaurant industry. “Use this time to stay connected to your spiritual self, keep your focus and come back stronger,” she advises.

Austin herself “tries to” manage her work-life balance, juggling her family and businesses by doing daily meditations, cooking at home and going on date nights with her partner. She also promises herself to take two big vacations a year.

~ Written for and published by Cuisine Noir Magazine. All Rights Reserved.

Jiyeon Lee’s Path From Korean Pop Star to Beloved BBQ Chef in the South

Chowhound. March 2020.

There’s a line out the door of a 750-square foot restaurant at the northern edge of Atlanta. People are flocking in for the sweet and spicy BBQ pork sandwiches with kimchi coleslaw, revered by the likes of Adam Richman and Andrew Zimmern. There’s standing room only, but patrons don’t seem to mind it. Heirloom Market BBQ is named one of the best BBQ restaurants in the USA by Food & Wine, Gayot, and Southern Living, among others. The chefs and owners—Jiyeon Lee and Cody Taylor—are nominated for Best Chef Southeast 2020 by the James Beard Foundation.

To get here, Lee (who also goes by Chef JiJi) has had a thrilling, fairytale ride. Continue reading on Chowhound…

What is Tibetan food? Find out at the only metro Atlanta restaurant that serves it.

Atlanta Magazine. Feb 2020.

At age 13, Kalsang Lama was already a skilled enough cook to prepare dinner for her family when they returned home from work each night. She grew up in a Tibetan settlement in Mussoorie, a popular hill station in northern India. Her parents were refugees who had fled religious persecution in Tibet, walking across the world’s highest mountains, the Himalayas, carrying just a few belongings with them. In Mussoorie, they worked constantly and spent family time reminiscing about their home country’s food and traditions.

Continue reading on Atlanta Magazine’s website…

Best Airports in the World for Long Layovers

Cuisine Noir Magazine. July 2019.

There’s a popular saying that “it is the journey that counts, not the destination.” But if the journey involves sitting still like a robot, squashed in the middle row of an airplane, listening to crying babies for 8-10 hours, you probably want to just close your eyes and get to the destination right away. Add to that, long layovers at unfamiliar airports when you are already jetlagged don’t make for pleasant travels either.

Thankfully, there are some airports around the world that somewhat ease the pain. From movie theaters to museums, these airports might make you wish you had a few more hours on the ground.

Holland Boulevard, Schiphol Lounge 2
Pictured: Holland Boulevard, Schiphol Lounge 2

Amsterdam Schiphol Airport | Schiphol, Netherlands

With colorful tulips, cheese shops, bakeries and ceramic stores, the Holland Boulevard at Amsterdam airport makes you feel like you are walking on one of the streets in Europe. To pass time, there’s Rijksmuseum, a casino, a library, a quiet room to pray, meditate or do yoga and a Kid’s Forest for young travelers to run around.

Don’t spend money on lounge access as there are lots of comfortable couches, bean bags and exercise bikes that charge as you pedal that are available for free.

Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport | Atlanta, Georgia

The busiest airport in the world may seem overwhelming at first, but is actually quite easy to navigate using the ATL SkyTrain that runs through a 4,700-acre complex. You can taste local flavors without having to leave Atlanta at one the many eateries offering choices from classic soul food and craft beer, to handmade pralines and rich slices of pound cake. Order the fried chicken skins with Hotlanta sauce at Ludacris’ Chicken+Beer, fried crawfish at Jekyll Island Seafood Company or a chili dog President Obamacouldn’t refuse at The Varsity.

There’s also a Martin Luther King Jr. exhibit featuring photographs and artifacts, including a suit King wore when he met with President Lyndon Johnson.

Hamad International Airport | Doha, Qatar

Doha has some of the most luxurious lounges in the world, so take full advantage of them. Arabic architecture, upscale dining and private bedrooms are just starters. Work out those sitting muscles with access to a full-sized swimming pool, fitness center and squash courts — at the airport.

The duty-free shops at Doha sell 24-karat gold jewelry, designer fashion and limited-edition fragrances and cosmetics. Make sure to also grab great tasting saffron chai and decorated baklava from one of the gift shops.

Movie theater at Changi Airport in Singapore
Pictured: Movie theater at Changi Airport | Photo credit: Changi Airport Group

Changi Airport | Singapore

It’s easy to kill a few hours transiting through Singapore. This airport has a rooftop pool, a two-story butterfly garden, a 4-foot slide, more than 200 restaurants and two movie theaters. Take a plunge in the Balinese-style swimming pool and whirlpool, or take a free city tour of Singapore if you have five or more hours to spare. There are also lots of choices for designer shopping and good quality food at the airport. Their latest addition is the world largest indoor waterfall.

Incheon International Airport | Seoul, South Korea

Pamper yourself with airport spas offering relaxing massages, play a 72-hole round of golf or try your luck at the casino. You will be able to indulge in Korean culture by just walking around Seoul’s modern and clean airport. There are free cultural performances, painting and origami classes going on for transiting passengers to entertain themselves.

Winter Market at the Munich Airport
Pictured: Winter Market at the Munich Airport

Munich Airport | Munich, Germany

If you can’t afford to make a trip to the Christmas markets in Europe, you can still get a glimpse of the festivities at Munich Airport. From late November to January, the airport transforms into a German village with food and craft stores, a carousel, and an ice skating rink.

Haneda Airport | Tokyo, Japan

You will probably think you have walked into a mall rather than an airport at Haneda, one of the two airports serving Tokyo. Shops, restaurants, cultural activities and spas, as well as a flight observation deck and flight simulators span a few stories of the airport building.

Tokyo Haneda is also one of the most family-friendly airports with entire areas dedicated to toy stores and gaming arcades.

~ Written for Cuisine Noir Magazine. All rights reserved.

What is Your Travel Style?

Khabar Magazine. May 2019.

As I checked into a charming Italian villa converted into a boutique hotel, nestled on top of a hill on the Amalfi Coast, I wondered how I would spend two summer days in this romantic location by myself. I stood on the purple-bougainvillea-wrapped white balcony of my room, with a glass of champagne in my hand, staring at the blue waters and rocky beaches of Positano, feeling at peace with myself. In that moment, I really didn’t want to talk to anyone or go anywhere. I just stayed at the hotel—reading, writing, eating, and soaking in the views for the rest of my trip.

Travel teaches you that being alone doesn’t make you “lonely” and you can enjoy your own company, as much as the company of others.

Until my late twenties, I had never been on a vacation without my parents or my spouse. One day I told my husband that I would be going to Dubai to visit my sister-in-law, and he was shocked. I had not even traveled to India by myself until that point.

The reason I started traveling without my family was mainly because of conflicting schedules. I wanted to travel more, but my husband’s corporate job only allotted a couple of weeks of vacation a year. I had a strong desire to see the world, a flexible schedule, and the resources to make it a reality.

Since then, I have traveled solo and also with friends, apprentices, and groups—to parts of the world I didn’t even know existed. On lone adventures, I hiked through the forests of Japan, slept in yurts in the Gobi Desert, and listened to lions roar from a camp in the Masai Mara.

On the other hand, I have also slept in a house with two dozen volunteer travelers in Morocco, and sailed in the Galapagos on a private yacht with 20 colleagues, who soon became friends.

When people ask me if they should take a trip alone or with a group, to book a package tour or go with the flow, my response is usually, “It depends!”

Depending on the destination, duration, budget, and your personality, you may prefer one travel style over the other. I personally feel all of them can be rewarding as long as you set expectations beforehand and have a flexible attitude.

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(Left) Samar Misra, the solo traveler.

Samar Misra, a graduate student at Alabama A&M University, frequently travels alone. His last trip spanned over two months, taking him to UAE, India, Nepal, Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, and Singapore. “It allows me more flexibility and freedom to travel alone. I am not chained to certain activities that my family and friends may like,” he says. On his last trip to Rishikesh, Misra, on an impulse, decided to join a group of extreme adventurers and jump off a rock into the river (with a life jacket on), something his family would not have done or approved of.

Mishra grew up in a household where most family vacations would involve visiting relatives in India and traveling around the country in large organized groups. “There is value in family vacations, too. I have vivid memories of my cousins, uncles, and aunts going to the Taj Mahal. We still reflect on and laugh at incidents from that trip!”

Mishra usually books his trips himself through various websites, apps, and with the assistance of friends. “I have a basic idea of where I am going, and may book some of the flights, but the rest I fill in as I go,” says Mishra. He enjoys wandering around neighborhoods and seeing how the locals live, something he wouldn’t be able to do with a restricted itinerary.

Travel also makes us more resourceful. As a vegan, Mumbai native Lakshmi Jagad prefers to rent a home through AirBnB so she has access to a kitchen. “It is sometimes difficult to find restaurants that cater to us, and we like to keep expenses low, so we cook at least a few meals while traveling,” says Jagad referring to vacations she took to Guatemala, Morocco, Greece, Peru, and Canada, with her husband.

While traveling with a tour group, it is more difficult to exercise dietary constraints, but more travel agents nowadays accommodate dairy free, gluten free, vegan, and vegetarian requests if you let them know ahead of time. “We went to the Isle of Skye in Scotland with a group and booked the trip through a local agency. We told them we are vegan and it wasn’t an issue at all!” Jagad assures.

Tour operators can also help with communicating cultural differences that you may not be able to deal with on your own. “For example, you may go to Vietnam and ask for a vegetarian dish but realize their version of vegetarian includes seafood and eggs,” Mishra adds.

Speaking for myself, when I was traveling through Japan for ten days, staying at ryokans (traditional Japanese inns) in the countryside, it would have been almost impossible to figure out cultural norms on my own. It was only through my tour guide (who spoke fluent Japanese and English), that I discovered you had to take your shoes off before entering the hotel, put on robes called yukata in the correct fashion, bathe in anonsen (community bath house), and follow certain dining etiquettes. Given that no one at the inns spoke a word of English, I wouldn’t have been able to check in to my room or order food without a hired guide.

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Gaurav Bhatia (right) likes to travel alone and connect with locals.

Atlanta-based ESL teacher, Gaurav Bhatia, has discovered another way to travel—he goes alone on self-planned trips where he’s always surrounded by locals. Bhatia communicates with native Spanish speakers he finds through italki.com (a video-chat language platform) to practice his language skills. “I remember the first night I was in Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic, I was treated to a Christmas dinner by my host and her family, and I instantly felt at home,” Bhatia recalls about his last trip.

The language exchange program allows travelers to meet locals, have one-on-one conversations and stay at people’s homes for little to no cost. Bhatia only books his flight and boarding, unless a local host offers a place to stay. Then it’s up to his new friends to show him around their city. These loosely planned vacations allow Bhatia to have chance encounters and deep conversations with strangers, learning about their country, beliefs, and way of life. He has been to Costa Rica, Mexico, Colombia, and Guatemala to visit his language partners and often spends his entire time with them.

When traveling alone, we are often forced to strike up conversations with strangers. I have found myself befriending people at airports, restaurants, hotels, tours, taxis, etc. whom I normally wouldn’t have noticed, had I been busy talking to a companion. It seems people also feel more comfortable talking to you when they see you are alone, and often go out of their way to help you.

While walking through the busy streets of Istanbul without a map or smart phone, I often got lost and asked strangers for direction. To my surprise, most people didn’t just tell me where to go, they would walk me to my destination, chatting along the way. On one such instance, I randomly met a newspaper publisher whom I keep in touch with till date. The next day, I joined my group for a ten-day tour of Turkey and did not experience any such random interactions with strangers, though I also didn’t lose my way again!

Tour companies and operators offer value and convenience for those who don’t want to spend a lot of time shopping for deals and booking each aspect of the trip individually. Although Divya Pahwa, travel agent at New Delhi-based Explorers Travel Boutique, who focuses exclusively on group travel, says, “Many South Asian clients will speak to one or more travel agents first to compare costs and then book directly online themselves.”

Many South Asians are using websites such as AirBnB, MakeMyTrip, Goibibo, and Yatra to book hotel, air, and sightseeing packages.

I knew Russia was not a place I wanted to visit on my own, because of logistics, language barriers, and safety, so I decided to book a group trip that focuses on volunteer vacationing. The company arranged to pick me up from the airport in Moscow and had made reservations for a comfortable stay at an apartment in Yaroslavl with four other women, where we had healthy and delicious home cooked Russian meals. During the day, we would be escorted by an English-speaking guide to meet other women, visit orthodox churches, tour the city, and never had to worry about the planning aspect. On the one evening that the five of us decided to go out for dinner on our own (without the tour company or guide), we struggled to find the right bus and order at the restaurant as the menus were only in Russian and the waitress didn’t speak a word of English!

Some people prefer package tours with a little flexibility. During our 2-week Mediterranean cruise, my husband and I declined all the shore tours offered by the cruise line. Instead, as soon as our megaship docked at the port, we leisurely walked for miles savoring the smells and sights of the city. As a couple with common interests, we decided to skip the long lines to enter historic sites and museums. Instead, we opted to stroll through gardens and markets, taking long afternoon breaks at outdoor cafes, as one does in Europe. Though all our meals were included onboard, we wanted to experience authentic local flavors. We would find a small neighborhood bakery in Marseille serving warm flaky croissants, the best gelato corner in Cinque Terre, and mouthwatering and cheap seafood paella with Spanish wine in Vigo.

In Morocco, I stayed at a house with 20 other travelers from around the world, who had signed up for an organized volunteer vacation. We had a set itinerary, home-cooked meals, and some sightseeing activities included in the package. Yet, they had also provided for free time to the volunteers over the weekend. Talking casually over breakfast, some of us decided to rent a van and travel from Rabat to Merzouga, a small town in the Sahara Desert near the Algerian border, where we camped under the star-studded African desert sky. It was a long exhausting drive into wilderness, not something I would have done alone. But my new companions gave me the confidence which led to one of the most memorable trips of my life!

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(Left) The author and her husband on a road trip in South Africa.

Most recently, we rented a car in South Africa for a 10-day vacation. My husband drove on the left side of the road, along the winding scenic roads of the Western Cape, as I navigated from the passenger seat. It allowed us to plan each day as it came, stopping at different cities, as and when we wished. Though we had a basic outline of what we wanted to see, our plans never worked out the way we thought. We took a detourto visit a wild cat sanctuary which pushed us back 3 hours, met up with a friend at the beach cancelling the rest of the evening, and turned a Sunday brunch into an all-day event at a vineyard.

Whether you are thinking about traveling alone or with family and friends, doing it yourself or hiring a travel agent, there are pros and cons to each. Traveling in a group is more affordable, structured and brings joy in sharing, while traveling solo offers more flexibility, honest interactions, and can be personally empowering. One needs to experience all forms of travel for they teach us something different about ourselves and our interactions with the world.

~ Written for & published by Khabar Magazine May 2019 print edition. All rights reserved.

Caribbean Smooth Creates Rum Liqueur Ou-Oui! With the Female Consumer in Mind

For Cuisine Noir Magazine. October 2018.

The founder of Caribbean Smooth, a new brand of tropical spiced rum liqueur, shakes an unusually shaped black-colored bottle and pours me a taste of his guava-pineapple and passion fruit blends as we chat sitting at the bar of a Mexican restaurant near his home in Atlanta. “This is an instant rum punch,” he says mixing the two flavors and adding a splash of ginger ale. It is Ou-Oui!

Walwyn uses fresh pink guavas and pineapples from Central and South America and blends them with spices from the Caribbean to create a smooth liqueur that is easy to drink straight from the bottle. There’s no burn from the alcohol, just a little heat and a slight buzz. With 20 percent alcohol and all natural ingredients, there’s nothing else like this on the market.

Growing up on the island of St. Kitts, Walwyn picked mangoes, bananas, coconuts, sugarcane and guavas from his backyard, eating them fresh and juicing them for a sweet treat. “Even as a kid, I created my own juices, spiked them up with my dad’s brandy, not for a buzz, but because I enjoyed how it changed the flavor profile,” he recalls of his first experiments.

After his father migrated to neighboring St. Croix in 2010, Walwyn would make a passion fruit cocktail for his friends and family, which was fondly named ‘Nigel’s Punch.’ It was inspired by a rum punch he had tried at a beach bar (formerly Ziggy’s) in St. Kitts, that he considered the best in the world. Word spread and before he knew it, people were asking him to make this special recipe for their events. He made three gallons for the St. Kitts Music Festival’s VIP tent and the crowd demanded more. “The people of St. Kitts are the harshest critics of rum drinks, and that’s when I knew I was on to something,” says Walwyn.

Creating the Consumer Demand for Something New

Soon requests poured in from colleagues at CNN in Atlanta where Walwyn worked at the time. With the encouragement of friends, he said goodbye to his 25-year-long career in TV news to become a beverage entrepreneur.

It took three and a half years of research, product development and getting certifications to bring the taste of the islands to the market. “I hit many roadblocks while I was going through the process by myself. It was frustrating at times, but I knew I was learning and doing something new and exciting,” he adds.

When Walwyn was testing out his recipes, people would taste test and say, “Oh yea!” It was an expression he repeatedly heard,  so he decided to call the product Ou-Oui!

Bottles of Ou-Oui! Rum Liqueur
Photo: Caribbean Smooth

I asked Walwyn about the unusual shape of the curved black bottle with a lipstick mark on the logo, colorful round bottle caps and picture of a couple on a sunset beach. “Ou-Oui! is designed for women. Women like romantic, flavorful, smooth alcoholic drinks. They are put off by strong burning spirits like scotch, whiskey and tequila. It comes in an easy to hold, curved feminine glass bottle. The dark bottle is functional, preserving the freshness of the fruit by blocking UV light,” he explains. The bottle can also be recycled and used as a vase, lamp or candle holder.

Walwyn recommends using Ou-Oui! as a base to enhance any cocktail recipe. You can add it to cognac or whiskey, margarita or mojitos – it doesn’t matter. Create an instant rum punch by mixing two parts passion fruit, one part guava-pineapple and a splash of ginger beer or ginger ale and pour it over ice. Add to Champagne and make a healthier mimosa. Each Ou-Oui! bottle has 14 ingredients already, so there are enough flavors and complexity to boost your cocktail. Shake the bottle well as the real fruit tends to settle at the bottom, refrigerate once opened.

Ou-Oui! is manufactured in Florida and currently available at 200+ stores in Alabama and Georgia. It is available during select food festivals and Caribbean events.

With only a year after the release of the brand, Walwyn is already working on creating new flavors (mango is expected to launch in 2020) and raising additional capital to expand the brand nationally.

To see where Ou-Oui! is available, visit www.caribbeansmooth.com and also follow Walwyn on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

~ Written for Cuisine Noir Magazine

A day of thanks. Gratitude is the attitude wherever you’re from

For Creative Loafing Atlanta. November 2018 print issue. 

Before I moved to Atlanta in 1997, I had a picture-postcard image of Thanksgiving — a Caucasian family wearing plaid shirts gathered around a big table covered with a dozen delectable dishes. There was always a whole pumpkin and orange tones to signify autumn. I knew there was a cooked turkey at the center of the festive spread (though I had never seen or tasted turkey growing up in India), but that was all I knew about Thanksgiving.

It wasn’t until I was a college freshman, when an elderly couple invited me to their home on Howell Mill Road for a traditional Thanksgiving dinner, that I got the full picture. They roasted a whole stuffed turkey and served creamy mashed potatoes, green beans with mushrooms, whipped sweet potatoes, tart cranberry dressing, and pumpkin pie. Then they told me the story of Thanksgiving — in the 1600s, the Wampanoag Indians taught the Pilgrims, who had sailed to the eastern coast of United States on the Mayflower, how to cultivate the land, and in appreciation, the Pilgrims cooked a “thank you” dinner. In 1863, President Abraham Lincoln declared “Thanksgiving” a national holiday, and ever since, Americans have celebrated Thanksgiving on the fourth Thursday of November each year, when families and friends gather for dinner. What we ate at my first Thanksgiving dinner in Atlanta are some of the dishes typically prepared (most of which I had never tasted before). My hosts asked me to say aloud what I was thankful for, and the three of us dived into my first Thanksgiving meal.

Over the next few years, I discovered a group of international orphans (that’s what we called ourselves, those who were transplants from other countries) who had a potluck dinner party on Thanksgiving Day. Most of us were single students and young professionals. Each one would bring a dish representing their country. We had a globally-inspired feast!

Once I started working a corporate job, I discovered Thanksgiving was also a long weekend and a great time to travel (except you must deal with the crowds). My friends who had moved to Atlanta from elsewhere in the U.S. were always planning a trip home over the Thanksgiving holidays. Since my husband and I had no other home in the states, we started using this opportunity to take vacations. This is when I also realized you could get a Thanksgiving turkey dinner practically anywhere in the U.S., even if you were unable to cook it yourself. I remember having “turkey and fixings” at the Universal Studios cafeteria, at a diner in Gatlinburg, even 30,000 feet in the air onboard a Delta flight from Amsterdam to Atlanta.

I also discovered people would get up very early in the morning on the day after Thanksgiving to stand in line at Walmart, Best Buy, and shopping malls for “Black Friday” deals on electronics and clothing. I didn’t see the point in waking up at 5 a.m. to go shopping, but my friends informed me they got very good deals! I didn’t quite get the concept at first. You have just finished being grateful for everything you have but feel the urgent need to go buy more stuff. The only time I indulged in this custom was when Nordstrom gave out free pumpkin pies with every purchase (and you didn’t need to come early for that, or spend a lot).

Now that I have spent more of my life in the U.S., Thanksgiving has become an important part of my American life. I have hosted dinners at my home, cooking turkeys and dozens of sides myself, and invited international students and friends who find themselves alone. The holiday is more of a reminder to be grateful, than to overindulge in food or retail therapy.

Commemorating a bountiful harvest is not a concept unique to the Pilgrims, as some version of it can be found in other parts of the world. People across Germany, Grenada, Korea, Japan, Liberia, and Norfolk Island have been known to celebrate some version of a day of remembrance — of giving gratitude for a good harvest, of counting one’s blessings or thanking the labor force — by enjoying a feast with family and friends. Many cultures have parades, carnivals, music, and dancing to celebrate abundant food with appreciation.

Other transplanted Atlantans have brought their own perspective to this holiday of giving thanks.

An English Canadian who grew up in Toronto, Fairyal Halim was accustomed to celebrating Thanksgiving as a day to give gratitude, rather than in the context of a historical event. Our northern neighbor has been celebrating the holiday long before us and has similar cooking traditions, though they celebrate it in on the second Monday in October. A U.S. resident for almost three decades, Halim now celebrates two Thanksgivings with her family — a Canadian one in October, and an American version in November.

Says Halim, “To this day, Thanksgiving remains grounded in the recognition of our immense blessings of family, friends, and gratitude for it all. It is really a time to focus on all that we are blessed with and to not take it for granted. I make a point of reaching out to family and/or friends who may find themselves alone on Thanksgiving.” She remembers hosting turkey dinners for her son’s college friends who were unable to make it home for Thanksgiving. The turkey came from a halal (slaughtered according to the principals of Islam) butcher, as Halim’s family is Muslim.

For Halim, Thanksgiving emphasizes the coming together of different people and being aware of the abundance in one’s life. “As a Muslim, I find great resonance of values that are important to me in the celebration of Thanksgiving. It is the perfect synthesis of our North American culture and religion. The concept of gratitude and thankfulness to God is foremost for Muslims. They are to be ever mindful of their blessings, to not take anything for granted, and to give thanks by saying ‘Alhamdulillah,’ meaning ‘all praise is for God.’ Thanksgiving is not limited to just one day for Muslims,” she says. “It’s is an attitude of gratitude.”

Cali, Colombia, native Cesar Restrepo came to Cleveland, Georgia, to pursue a bachelor’s degree in music. “I knew that my brothers and family living in Miami celebrated Thanksgiving, but I thought it was just a break they had before Christmas. I also knew about the special prices on pretty much everything. For me it was just a mere shopping holiday,” he recalls of his first brush with the holiday.

PREPPING: Cooking the paella. courtesy of Cesar Restreppo

PREPPING: Cooking the paella. courtesy of Cesar Restreppo

For his first turkey dinner, Restrepo was invited by a Colombian family who served him a typical American Thanksgiving dinner along with tamales, a customary dish at every Colombian holiday. He remembers taking a moment before the meal to express what each of them was thankful for, especially for the blessings this country had given them. Twenty years later, Restrepo continues the tradition with his wife and kids, cooking all day, inviting friends over, and reflecting on the good fortune they have in their lives.

“For me, Thanksgiving is an opportunity to gather with other immigrants and make them feel welcome in a country that is not ours but is kind enough to host us. It’s also an act of kindness and peace,” says Restrepo. Having grown up in a relatively poor country, he doesn’t like the extravagant feasts where a lot of food is wasted.

Content writer and blogger Lakshmi Devi Jagad moved from Mumbai to Atlanta in 2003. She, too, had no knowledge of the historic significance of Thanksgiving before arriving in the U.S., but she had heard about the incredible sales the holiday brought with it. “I believe Thanksgiving has been monetized for many years now!” she observes.

Over the years, it has become a day when she and her husband catch up with friends over a good meal and conversation, a quiet and peaceful time, Jagad says, for “a social gathering, a fun get-together, an opportunity to relax.”

Being vegetarian, Jagad must forgo the indispensable turkey and opt for an elaborate vegetable biryani, a layered Indian rice dish with saffron and nuts that is served with a side of cucumber and yogurt raita. “We prepare a huge pot of it as our version of the turkey,” she says.

Father George Mahklouf, an Orthodox priest from the Palestinian city of Ramallah in the West Bank, has also integrated Thanksgiving into his annual rituals. “Whether Palestinians, Arabs, or other immigrants from overseas coming to America, many try to follow the traditions of the country they choose to live in. I lived in Yonkers, NY, then Long Island, and finally Atlanta. Wherever I went, Arabs celebrated Thanksgiving. Why? I don’t know, though most probably see it as a gathering of family and friends.”

Mahklouf says the story of the Native Americans and the Pilgrims is familiar to him. “It reminds me of our similar Palestinian story as native indigenous people of the land of Canaan who were displaced by Ashkenazi Jews coming from Poland, Russia, and other places in the world to live in our own homes and take over our businesses and orchards.” Mahklouf, who breaks his own Nativity Fast “in order to please people (at Thanksgiving)” for a feast he never celebrated in Palestine, says his thankfulness, like Halim’s, is not limited to the holiday. “We thank God and all who do us favors, without having a special day to thank God and others.”

Thanksgiving in the U.S. has traditionally been a historic celebration, with religious overtones for many, but today it is celebrated by immigrants from around the world, regardless of their religious or cultural beliefs or ethnic backgrounds, who have chosen to make the United States their home. The holiday may have evolved from a day of giving thanks around the dinner table to include watching afternoon football games and starting the holiday shopping season, but its essence — celebrating an abundance of food after a fall harvest, breaking bread together with others, and appreciating one’s blessings — has endured over time.

~ Written for Creative Loafing Atlanta