A tech entrepreneur who set up a restaurant brings a unique set of Indian flavors to the Bay Area
Anirban Datta of Curry on Wheels is not a chef by profession. But that may be difficult to explain to the Bengalis who were there for his bijoya buffet (served on the 10th day of the Durga Puja) at his restaurant last week and where the fare included Rahu fish, deviled eggs, veg cutlets, Bengali tomato chutney and fried papad in the Bengali style and much more.
Datta went to every group to anxiously inquire if the fish bore the right flavor, perhaps distracting the patrons from their work at the table.
indica pointed out to Datta that someone from an IT background like him would be expected to be more familiar with Java, breadcrumbs, and cookies than jhol, kunro and sausha.
Datta smiled as he declared his passion for food.
“I wanted to do something in the Valley, we being Bengalis. We did not have our footprint here,” he said.
Datta, who passed out from IIM-Calcutta came to the US in 1999 as a director of Birlasoft, an IT firm, to head the West Coast office. He managed such clients as Microsoft, General Electric, eBay, 3COM, Wells Fargo and Visa for eight years. In 2004 he founded ValleySoft, Inc, a tech support firm; Jobsbridge; and a social recruiting portal.
In 2015 he joined Intelliswift Software, Inc, as Vice President – Global Talent Acquisition & Management but around the same time also incorporated Curry on Wheels. That was after he tested the idea by subleasing an Indian restaurant in 2010.
“I just started the restaurant [Annapoorna] to see how it goes, in El Camino RecalI, took it as a startup kind of thing,” said Datta, who admitted that though he loves Bengali foods his background does not lie in restaurants or food production. “Cooking at home and running a restaurant is risk.”
Datta said it took time to build awareness about East Indian cuisine, calling for investment and time.
“Most importantly you have to structure your food in a manner that attracts not only a handful of Bengalis but also caters to the mainstream,” he said, adding that Bengali food has many influences, including Chinese, British and Mughal. He pointed out that deviled eggs are a British gift, which is now one of the most popular dishes at the restaurant
“That is how my journey began,” said Datta. “We took the place without experience and had to close it soon.”
He ran a food truck, in 2013, also called “Curry on Wheels” until people started recognizing the food.
“Annapurna was more of a learning experience. So when I started Curry on Wheels, the goal was to build a hub and spoke model,” Datta said. And that helped him learn how to run a food business.
He moved back to a traditional restaurant a few months ago, using the same brand name, Curry on Wheels. He still has not given up on the food truck model though he plans to work on that after his new restaurant is successful.
He even plans to have other restaurants as part of a chain but pointed out that running a restaurant is a full-time job.
“You need a commercial kitchen with good loyal people to take care of things, and you really need a general manager,” said Datta, ticking off requirements. But it was he who taught the cook how to make Bengali dishes, including katti rolls and a Kolkata-style biryani he said was a gift from Mughals. The restaurant’s Indian Chinese food has a special flavor as well.
“It’s over 4 years and [the Curry on Wheels brand] is still sustaining,” Datta said.
He points to the restaurant’s Yelp reviews, where the food earns praise, though service gets lower grades. Datta puts those negative reviews to the time the cook was not prepared for a sudden influx of 100 new patrons coming in. Still, despite some disgruntlement, the people waited patiently for what was ultimately a great meal.