Hurley Cafeteria's Cafe Spice Makes National News
Feb. 3-Hurley doctors, nurses and Executive Chef Steve Dunn are prominently featured in a Feb. 2 Bloomberg Businessweek article about the fast-growing popularity of Cafe Spice and more broadly, Indian cuisine, in America's dining habits. An except from the article appears below.
In the cafeteria of Hurley Medical Center, in Flint, MI, a doctor walks up to the steam trays at the Cafe Spice kiosk, takes a spoon, and flicks two grains of rice pulao into his mouth. He chews for several seconds, then walks to the other side of the counter and samples another batch. After careful deliberation, the doctor forgets the rice, takes two naan breads, douses his plate with mint chutney, and sits at a table with his colleagues—doctors from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Nepal. All of them have been eating curries, biryanis, and other Indian staples every day for lunch and dinner since the Cafe Spice kiosk opened here last summer.
“Before, we were eating a lot of mac and cheese,” groans Dr. Rao Mushtaq, a general practitioner originally from Pakistan. “My first year here my cholesterol shot up dangerously high,” echoes Dr. Vishwas Vaniawala, an Indian pediatrician. “Honestly, I used to skip lunches because I was sick of eating salads and sandwiches and chips.”
The South Asian doctors, who, as at many U.S. teaching hospitals, make up the majority of residents at Hurley, eventually demanded more familiar food from Steve Dunn, the cafeteria’s executive chef. Dunn, an employee of the catering giant Sodexo, had never even tasted Indian food, but he made samosas, saag paneer, and chickpea masala from scratch. “I couldn’t do it every day,” he recalls, despite the doctors’ enthusiastic response. “I mean, it takes a hell of a lot of time and knowledge. It took my staff three weeks to learn how to make basmati rice, because they were used to Uncle Ben’s.”
So Dunn turned to Cafe Spice, America’s largest Indian foodservice company, which has a branded partnership with Sodexo. Each month he receives a shipment of frozen Indian dishes that his staff heats and serves in a kiosk designed and installed by Cafe Spice.
Cafe Spice owner Sushil Malhotra wants to make chicken tikka masala as popular in the U.S. as KFC.
What’s happening in Flint is spreading across the nation as Cafe Spice owners Sushil Malhotra and his son Sameer place their curries in supermarkets, hospitals, colleges, and corporate cafeterias. Cafe Spice’s 17 current locations include Massachusetts Institute of Technology, New York University, and the New York headquarters of Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley. The company’s food is sold without the brand name in another 400 cafeterias and in more than 250 Whole Foods Market stores. In the past year, Cafe Spice’s revenue grew 40 percent, to some $20 million. While that’s tiny compared with sales at a food giant like McDonald’s, which moves $20 million worth of product about every six-and-a-half hours, should Cafe Spice’s expansion continue, Sushil Malhotra may fulfill a dream he’s had for 40 years: To make his beloved Indian cuisine mainstream in the U.S. “It could be as big as the sushi invasion,” he says.
Malhotra, 63, moved to New York from Bombay in 1966 to study engineering at City College, and later worked at Shell and American Electric Power. In 1970 he and his father opened a spice trading shop, supplying New York’s curry houses with spices, chutneys, and papadums. When he and his wife, Lata, had American friends over to their house for dinner, the guests would ask him why they couldn’t get food this simple and fresh at Indian restaurants around town. Neighborhood Indian restaurants, their decor inevitably designed to evoke the Taj Mahal, tend to serve identical menus, often from a buffet.
To showcase the untapped glories of Indian cooking, Sushil opened a fine-dining restaurant in Manhattan called Akbar in 1976, and another, Dawat, eight years later. He brought in cookbook author Madhur Jaffrey—the Julia Child of Indian food—to design the menu. While Dawat was a critical and financial success, Sushil wanted to emulate what was happening in the U.K., where curry was supplanting fish and chips as the national food. He dabbled in other mass-market concepts, including a takeout spot called Curry in a Hurry, before opening Cafe Spice near NYU in 1998. The restaurant, since sold, was revolutionary in its design and simplicity: a modern Indian bistro, priced between the greasy buffets and Dawat. A year later the company opened its first Cafe Spice Express in Grand Central Terminal. Sushil soon saw the potential to put these quick serve counters where Indian restaurants had never ventured. “Sushil’s at the cutting edge of getting the message out,” says restaurateur Drew Nieporent, who changed the image of Japanese food in America with his Manhattan restaurant Nobu. “By bringing Indian food to supermarkets and cafeterias, Sushil’s also made it more acceptable and accessible.”
At the Hurley Medical Center cafeteria in Flint, it’s clear Cafe Spice has won over Tracy Daviek, a nurse who had never tried Indian food until Cafe Spice opened this summer. “I tried it on the first day,” she says, dipping a piece of naan into bhindi okra masala. “My favorite is the chicken,” she says, and turns to Steve Dunn. “You know, the one in the red sauce?”
“Chicken tikka masala,” Dunn says.
“Yeah, and the mango smoothies.”
“Lassi,” says Dunn.
Another nurse comes and eyes Dunn’s plate of chicken vindaloo. “Hey Steve,” she says, “I don’t know what it is, but I want a taste of that tomorrow.”