What’s in a name? A lot say restaurateurs

Company: India
Location: 758 Hope Street and 123 Dorrance Street
Type of business: Indian Restaurant
Owners: Amar D. Singh and Mohitosh Talukdar
Number of employees: 8
Founded: 1991
Annual Sales: WND

The two entrepreneurs wanted a name for their Indian restaurant that would be as pleasurable sliding off the tongue as a bite of their mango curry. So in 1991 Curry in a Hurry was born. To Amar D. Singh and Mohitosh Talukdar the name was catchy enough to stick in customers’ heads and indicative of the type of cuisine they were offering.

“Well we were wrong. The name was a mistake,” said Singh, shaking his head. “People thought Curry in a Hurry meant it was fast food. So after getting hammered by people about the name we decided it was time for a change.”

They then thought simple and found seemingly the perfect name for an Indian restaurant: India. The name change in 1995 proved to be a giant step for the business, which has since expanded to two locations with plans of adding a third.

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“A name can say a lot. For many Curry in a Hurry said fast food, which is often heavy and greasy. People who like our Indian food like it (among other things) because it is healthy,” said Singh.

For Singh, a native of New Delhi, India, and Talukdar of Bangladesh, making Americans comfortable with cuisine that is by no means mainstream is half the battle and they appear to be putting up a good fight.

The business, voted the best Indian restaurant in the state by Rhode Island Monthly for the last two years, has built a loyal following at both its Hope Street and downtown locations.

The two Johnson & Wales University graduates have come a long way since they spent $8,000 at auction on their first restaurant, Curry in a Hurry on Thayer Street. They transformed a former pizza pad and tinkered with traditional India foods to make them healthier.

They even opened a second restaurant in Riverside with the same name and concept, but customers didn’t get it. The Riverside restaurant lasted eight months and the Thayer Street location struggled, forcing the duo to regroup.

Based on research they knew their target audience were people who are educated, affluent, world travelers and health nuts. They thought Curry in a Hurry was not appealing to that audience because of the perception that it was fast food and also that the restaurant would lack the proper Indian atmosphere.

They opened India at 758 Hope Street in 1995 and eventually sold off Curry in a Hurry. Soon after they opened another, larger restaurant at Dorrance Street, the location of the former Metro Café.

“Within a month of opening with the new name we knew we made the right decision. The response was beautiful,” said Singh. The Hope Street location thrives on the East Side neighborhood and relies heavily on its regulars. Downtown they enjoy a great lunch time business and a more varied dinner crowd of first-timers and regulars.

The company’s franchise documents were approved last year and the name India, along with the slogan “We add spice to your life,” is now a registered trademark. For the last year, the business owners have been looking for a third location, possibly in Newport, Warwick or in South County.

As they learned from the name problems, Singh and Talukdar welcome input from the public.

Catering to their consumers’ needs, the businessmen made changes like offering menu descriptions that detail the ingredients and the manner in which their 30 or so exotic entrees are made. They also offer a range of meal prices, starting as low as $5.

“We are creating something the customers want rather than creating something we think is fantastic and trying to convince them to like it,” Singh said.

Both have learned a lot about the American consumer since they moved to the United States.

Talukdar, 30, came to this country in 1991 to get his master’s degree in economics from Johnson & Wales. Singh left India 15 years ago to study hotel and restaurant management at the university.

Both saw ways in which their ethnic background made it difficult to work with the public here.

“Our English was okay, but we both had very strong accents,” said Talukdar.

Singh said, “I didn’t even look the same as I do now. I used to wear a turban and a beard. I came from a family that lived the traditions of Sikhism.

“I wouldn’t call it a prejudice, but in the industry there is so much interaction with the public that you need to have a certain attire. So I decided to make some changes,” he added.

While his parents were not thrilled with his decision to take off the turban and shave his beard, Singh felt it was a good business move in gaining acceptance.

In his attempt not to look “different,” Singh also understood the importance of being different.

“By interacting with customers they brought to our attention that when they come to an Indian restaurant they expect the full nine yards,” he explained. “When they enter what meets their eyes and what they hear should be Indian. They don’t mind our accent, in fact they expect it.”

He said having Indian employees, paintings and music are part of the atmosphere that makes dining more than eating, but an experience.

“They might feel that someone who was born and brought up in India can express and explain the menu better,” he said. People generally have misconceptions of what Indian food is like, he added.

“People say I don’t like curry because it is hot and spicy,” he explained. “They don’t understand that there can be 100 different kinds of curries. There are 25 spices we use that can make a meal very mild to fiery hot.”

Talukdar said his waiters try to help customers who are not familiar with the food to find what might be right for them.

“Many people thank us for suggesting something. They say they never would have known Indian food could be so good,” Talukdar said.

Singh added that dinner at his restaurant is also a chance to learn about non-edible facets of a culture.

“The most often asked questions we get is why do Indian women have dots on their forehead. It’s something they have always wondered and have a chance to ask someone who knows about it,” he said, adding that the dot is used to indicate that a woman is married.

The restaurants’ walls offer a window into Indian life. On Dorrance Street there are over-sized paintings of Indian dances, farmers, villages and several portraits of Mother Teresa.

The collection by artists at the Lincoln company Art of Life, includes a painting of a group of Indian women kneeling at a ceramic pot with the Providence skyline behind them.

“They painted that to say that we brought India to Providence’s downtown. I’m proud to think we did,” Singh said.

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