When the Pandemic Hit, These Native American Entrepreneurs Got Creative

Fodors Travel. November 2021.

Located near Gallup, New Mexico, in the Colorado Plateau, sits an isolated Native American village. The pueblo of Zuni is a 1300-year-old settlement comprised of indigenous people that organize themselves by the Ashiwi religion and consider themselves children of mother earth and owners of the Seven Golden Cities of Cíbola.

Today, the pueblo comprises approximately 12,500 residents, most of whom are retired or very young. Like many Native American villages, adults move away to the big cities for higher education and lucrative jobs. There is not much of an economy within the pueblo unless you make jewelry, pottery, or other arts and crafts to sell at the trading posts. What the Zunis have to their advantage is a deeply rooted history and passion for sharing with the outside world. Recently, few locals have taken the initiative to create structured programs so that visitors can learn about Zuni history, culture, and cuisine.

~ Continue reading on Fodors Travel.

Peach Plate: Entertaining Safely

Georgia Trend. May 1, 2021.

Holiday parties, office luncheons and company-wide events – these staples of business life all but disappeared in the past year. Some of us are still not comfortable dining out in a group setting and continue to eat lunch at our home offices. Others elect to meet at spacious restaurants or open-air patios. As we resume some sort of normalcy, restaurants, caterers and private chefs have adapted to satisfy all comfort levels.

~ Continue reading online on Georgia Trend Magazine’s website or grab a May 2021 print issue.

Hotels in the Time of Covid

Khabar Magazine. Nov 2020.

The hotel industry, like restaurants, has been battered during the pandemic. How are South Asian-owned hotels dealing with the crisis? What changes have they made to reassure guests and employees? As travel slowly picks up, what’s the new normal going to be like at your next stay in a hotel?

Like most people, I started this new year with a list of resolutions and aspirations. One of them was to visit my hundredth country and all seven continents. For the past several years, I have been traveling internationally at least once or twice a month, crisscrossing the globe, and was scheduled to enter the travel centurion club by mid-2020. I traveled to Antarctica and Europe in the first couple of months of the year, but by mid-March, the future of travel started to look uncertain. Countries were closing borders, visas were getting suspended, and conferences and festivals started cancelling.

As with everyone in the travel industry, my life too has been greatly impacted by the pandemic. The stay-at-home order left me grounded for over two months, and virtual travel was just not satisfying, personally and professionally.

As soon as Georgia reopened businesses, I took my first overnight trip to Lookout Mountain, a small hilltop destination located at the border of Georgia and Tennessee. Staying at a hotel, with a looming infectious virus, was daunting at first. I debated whether it was safer to continue to stay at home or to go out and support the economy. Cabin fever had left me restless and after considerable research, I decided to venture out. What I learned was that the hospitality industry had quickly set new standards in cleanliness after consulting with CDC and other organizations.

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At the River View Inn in Chattanooga, I had to wear a mask when entering the reception area, where  a plexiglass divider separated me from the attendant. There were arrows on the sidewalks, and signage throughout the property, reminding guests to keep six feet distance from each other and to wear masks in public areas. The rooms had been sanitized and inn capacity was capped to about 60 percent. Sit-down breakfast service was suspended and replaced with fruit and granola bars to take away in the morning. The new experience was a bit strange, but it felt good to get away from the usual routine of cooking meals every day and attending back-to-back Zoom calls.

Since May, I have stayed at a number of bed-and-breakfasts inns, boutique hotels, and resorts around the U.S. All of them seem to be cleaner than ever, holding heightened standards to ensure safety of guests and employees. In Duck, a beach town on the Outer Banks in North Carolina, Sanderling Resort enforced touchless check-in and check-out with online forms and keys handed out in parking lots. A reassuring note hung on the door knob stating that no one had entered my room since it was sanitized. Remote controls and door knobs had been wiped down. Enough towels and toiletries were left in the room for the duration of my stay to avoid interaction with housekeepers. Other places, like the Marble Distillery Hotel in Colorado, did not utilize keys at all. They simply emailed me a door code to enter my room. I never had to speak to a staff member during my two-night stay. And at Home in The Tropics B&B in St. Thomas, a QR code guided me to neighborhood attractions and restaurants, instead of maps and brochures.

The impact of Covid-19 on the travel industry has been surmountable, despite the heavy blow. Hotels in particular have had to adjust their businesses overnight. Approximately 40-50 percent of the hotels in the United States are owned by South Asians, according to the Asian American Hotel Owners Association (AAHOA), a trade association that represents hotel owners. Hotels are categorized by ownership (chain, single owner), target markets (airport, extended stay, resorts), and by level of service and number of rooms.

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Budget and value or economy hotels such as Motel 6, Comfort Inn, and Americas Best have the lowest room rates and offer good value for money. Mid-range and business hotels such as Marriott and Holiday Inns cater to families, business travelers, and affluent travelers. Brands such as Mandarin Oriental, Langham, and Ritz-Carlton fall into the category of Luxury Hotels. Generally, Asian Americans dominate the motel ownership in small towns.

 Adapting to new standards

Because hotels are termed as an essential business, they did not close during the lockdown, yet maintained operations even without any guests.

Navid Kapadi, a partner at Atlanta-based Peach State Hospitality, owns three Choice Hotels franchises located near Atlanta airport. The mid-grade hotel brand caters to leisure travelers who are on road trips through the Southeast and are looking for a night to break their journey. When the shutdown was announced, he panicked. “It was very concerning as we didn’t know what to expect. We had never expected anything like this and didn’t have any guidance on how to deal with it. All of a sudden, cancellations started pouring in.

The first week was extremely tough!” says Kapadi who has been in the hotel business for about five years. His staff immediately sprang into action, partnering with Eco Lab to make sure all their cleaning products were up to date, deeply sanitizing every room, and cleaning the facilities more often. They rearranged the lobby to allow for social distancing, spaced breakfast tables six feet apart, installed plexiglass barriers and sanitizing stations, and put up signs stating only two people could enter the elevator at a time. Further, they implemented daily temperature checks and retrained all their employees.

Not all hotel segments experienced the same level of concern. “Our properties play in the monthly and weekly, long-term, affordable housing segment. Our occupancy has actually gone up during this time. During recession, people are looking for housing where rents are lower and utilities are included,” says Ali Jamal, author of the upcoming book Can-Do Real Estate and CEO of Stablegold Hospitality, which owns and operates seven locations in the Atlanta metro area and two in North Dakota. Jamal claims his top-line revenues during the crisis have been better than he had expected.

Like everyone else in the industry, Jamal did not know how much of an impact Covid-19 would have on the economy and the hotel business. But there’s always a segment of the population that depends on affordable housing, in a flexible format that hotels offer. This has led to a steady and consistent business for him, as well as for other hoteliers in this space. Still, Jamal felt the economic challenge of his customer base and worked with each one of them to offer discounted rates up to 50 percent and flexible payment options to ensure they had a roof over their heads.

Managing financial crisis

New safety measures are now required to reinforce confidence, but put a strain on the hotel’s resources even as revenues dwindle. “We have had to cut back expenses on planned upgrades and other investments, and redo our budgets for the next year,” says Kapadi. Not serving breakfast has reduced costs but hardly enough to offset the added expenses, while occupancy still remains low.

Sam Patel, who owns a Travelodge in Forsyth County, Georgia, and a Red Roof Inn in Richmond Hill, Georgia, also saw considerable impact on his business, but decided to take advantage of the Small Business Administration Economy Injury Disaster Loan (EIDL) and Paycheck Protection Program (PPP). “It allowed us to retain our staff, pay our mortgage, and keep operations going,” he says. Being a smaller hotel, Patel was able to reduce operation costs in the interim. He shrank employee hours, scaled back on ground maintenance, and turned off the lights and refrigerators in unused rooms to save on utilities. Patel also consulted with other hoteliers in the area and concluded, “We are sustaining with the help of government loans but are uncertain about the future. Perhaps we would need another stimulus package, or many of us will need to shut down permanently.”

Prioritizing people

Another major issue that hoteliers are facing during the pandemic is having enough staff return to work. Employees face the same health risks as the customers do, if not more. Being on the frontline of cleaning rooms after each customer, they have more chances of being exposed to the virus. Kapadi adds, “We still have a lot of work, but it’s been challenging, getting staff to return to work. Many of them prefer to receive unemployment, and are afraid for their health.”

Meanwhile, Jamal has not only been able to avoid furloughs, but has hired additional staff to meet demand at his extended stay properties. He also gave out full bonuses to all his managers regardless of their hitting targets.

The new normal

Travel has slowly resumed and many people are resorting to road trips and choosing destinations close to home. “This time of the year, we are typically at 80-100 percent capacity, but now we are at 40-45 percent,” says Kapadi, who has seen increased traffic on the highways in the past few weeks. He can’t predict when his business will return to normal, but is hoping to see more guidelines for the hotel industry.
Patel feels more skeptical. “Though road traffic has increased, people are choosing to skip staying overnight in Georgia, due to our recent spike in cases.” He believes that the state has earned a bad reputation for the way it is handling the virus, which is resulting in guests driving further to stay in neighboring Tennessee and South Carolina.

Across the nation, as vacationers book accommodations, they are not just price sensitive anymore. They are asking questions about what the hotels are doing to ensure health and safety. Hotels need to assure clients that their room is perfect. Each one is expected to observe the new norms that may include touchless check-ins, temperature checks of guests and employees, health screening, reduced room capacities, and extended cleaning procedures. Staff and guests are required to wear masks and limit interactions. Housekeeping, happy hours, and buffet breakfast have also been put on hold.

An uncertain future

There is much uncertainty in the travel space right now, and usual business travel is not likely to return for many months. Lack of a vaccine, increasing unemployment, and fluctuating virus cases are not good news for hoteliers. They believe that big chains that have larger operating costs are more exposed and are going to continue to face challenges, while smaller economy hotels may be able to sustain themselves longer. Major hotel operators Hilton Worldwide Holdings Inc., Hyatt Hotels Corp., and Marriott International Inc. have already laid off thousands of employees and have not seen a major uptick in bookings.

Dos and don’ts for your next hotel stay

If you decide to stay at a hotel during these times, make sure to check the city/state travel website to get latest updates on travel restrictions and safety measures. Call the hotel or check their website to see what procedures they have in place and how prepared their staff is. Ask basic questions about cleaning, social distancing, wearing masks, etc.

If you see something that you are not comfortable with, make sure to point it out to the manager so they can rectify it. Also, carry your own PPE (personal protection equipment) such as masks, hand sanitizers, and disinfecting wipes with you when you travel. It is a good idea to wipe down high-touch surfaces such as remote controls, air-conditioning switches, and door handles yourself. Lastly, don’t expect the same level of services and amenities as before. Many hotels have closed access to pools, spas and gyms, and are limiting room service, turndown service, late checkouts, or sit-down breakfasts. They too are anxious and worried while trying to survive, not knowing how bad it can get.

~ Written for and published by Khabar Magazine. All rights reserved. Pick up a copy of the November 2020 issue to read more.

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.

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.