When Rahul Vinod and Sahil Rahman told their families they wanted to follow in their fathers' footsteps and open a restaurant together, the initial reaction was . . . well, tepid. The budding restaurateurs, after all, would be sacrificing promising white-collar careers in New York to move into a sweaty, unforgiving trade that places great demands on all who enter it.
“When Rahul came and told his 82-year-old grandmother, she was initially not very happy about it,” noted chef K.N. Vinod, father of Rahul and co-owner of Indique in Cleveland Park and Bombay Bistro in Rockville with longtime partner Surfy Rahman.
“She asked him, 'Are you sure? Why do you want to quit a nice paying job?'”
But Rahul and Sahil had prepped long and hard for their respective family announcements. In fact, they met weekly for three months in New York when not clocking hours in their consulting (Sahil) or investment banking (Rahul) jobs. They discussed ideas large and small, all in preparation not just for their debut restaurant but also for their abrupt career reveals to the family.
The preparation paid off on the home front. “Their passion and understanding of the rough terrain calmed our apprehension,” noted Surfy Rahman during a Facebook chat.
Next year, Rahul, 26, and Sahil, 25, will find out if their prep has paid off on the business front, as well. They plan to launch Rasa Indian Grill, a fast-casual concept, next summer in a 2,200-square-foot space inside the F1RST building at 1277 First St. SE in Navy Yard.
Rasa is not some knee-jerk idea the duo dreamed up while bored with their office work in the Big Apple. Sahil first conceived the restaurant back in 2007 when he was still a student at Gaithersburg High School. For a class, he developed a business plan for an Indian fast-casual eatery that he and his longtime friend, Rahul, would run together. The idea was never far from either man's mind, even as they graduated from the University of Maryland's Robert H. Smith School of Business and moved to Manhattan to launch their careers.
Finally, one day in New York, the two friends realized they had a “really cool opportunity here,” Sahil recalled. “If we don't jump and go for this now, we might look back and wonder what would have been.”
Patterned after fast-casual powerhouses such as Sweetgreen and Cava Grill, Rasa will try to fill a gap that the owners identified in the Indian dining market. While there are refined Indian restaurants (think: Rasika, Passage to India and Masala Art, among others) and mom-and-pop joints (Indigo, Bethesda Curry Kitchen, Tiffin, etc.), there are few places to order chicken curry in a hurry (outside such counter-service operations as Merzi in Penn Quarter and Spice 6 in Hyattsville and Fairfax).
Unlike existing fast-casual spots, Sahil and Rahul don't plan to tone down the spice blends at Rasa to cater to a non-Indian palate. “We are going to have authentically Indian food, but we’re taking those flavors and putting them into a more accessible format,” Sahil said.
What's more, the pair plan to emphasize vegetables as much as meats. Half of the six protein options at Rasa will be vegetarian. Customers will follow the familiar build-your-own approach of fast-casual shops: Diners will select a base (such as rice or greens or wrap), a protein, sauce (four will be available), side vegetable, toppings and a chutney. The exact options are still in development while Sahil and Rahul continue to work with their fathers on a menu.
The elder Vinod and Rahman are offering more than culinary support. They're also investors. But the sons have found other revenue as well. Via its Innovation Finance Program, the District of Columbia is an equity investor in Rasa; the city contributed $100,000 to help build out the restaurant, which is being designed by HapstakDemetriou+, the studio behind several Cava Grill and Nando's Peri-Peri locations.
The name of their debut eatery has a double meaning: Yes, it's a mash-up of the owners' two names, RA-hul and SAhil. But, as the guys found out, “rasa” in Sanskrit also translates into “essence of enjoyment” in English. It struck the young restaurateurs as the perfect name. After all, they get to spend time daily with the fathers, who introduced them to the restaurant industry more than two decades ago.
“We feel that we are really lucky to have that opportunity,” Rahul said.