Indian food, Raji Sankar says, can provide “a beautiful symphony of flavors” that anyone would enjoy.
And, increasingly, Western consumers are getting in tune with menu offerings like tikka masala and naan flatbread. According to a recent study by The Picky Eater website, Indian establishments are the third-most common restaurant type in the most-visited cities around the world (8%), trailing only Chinese (9.5%) and Italian (8.5%) restaurants.
“The new generations are looking for bolder flavors and aren’t afraid to try new things,” Sankar, co-founder of Choolaah Indian BBQ restaurants, told The Food Institute. “Part of it is how global our world is [now]; the Internet gives access to anything and everything.”
CUSTOMERS APPRECIATE AUTHENTICITY
At Choolaah’s eight U.S. fast-casual restaurants, Sankar has found customers in cities like Pittsburgh receptive to North Indian cuisine – especially the experience of watching employees slapping naan bread to the side of urn-shaped, tandoor ovens.
“Our strategy is very simple,” Sankar said. “Two words describe our strategy: it’s authentic – it must be grandma-approved – and the other part is accessible, so it’s not something that’s intimidating.”
Barbecue is now the second-most popular meal type worldwide (per The Picky Eater’s research), trailing only pizza. And Choolaah has seized upon that popularity, offering an array of proteins like paneer, lamb, and flaky salmon. But, from Cleveland to suburban Philadelphia, Choolaah’s customers have also shown an appetite for items like chickpea wraps and pav bhaji (akin to a vegetarian sloppy Joe).
Sankar, who helped launch Choolaah in 2014, has been pleased with American consumers’ willingness to embrace Punjabi cuisine.
“By 2012 we started seeing signs of how people had caught on” to Indian food, Sankar said. “We started seeing the palates of people we knew, the kinds of adventures that people are willing to take. People are willing to give it a shot.”
EMBRACING HEALTHIER-FOR-YOU FOOD
The restauranteur said another key to winning over most American consumers in 2023 is to offer transparency along with healthier-for-you menu items. That’s why Choolaah’s online menu clearly lists every ingredient in dishes like its protein bowls and why the chain offers ample vegetarian and vegan items.
“I think healthy is a way of being these days, across the board,” Sankar said. “We’re seeing, in general, people gravitating toward … wanting to know what’s in their food. That’s sort of a shift, mentally.”
Consumers’ growing appetite for Indian food has Sankar daring to dream of a Choolaah location “on every corner” in multiple countries.
“We’re thrilled to bits that people are willing to expand their palates and are willing to try this,” the Choolaah co-founder said. “Indian cuisine has so much to offer the world.
“Americans have become huge fans of international cuisines like Asian, Italian, Mexican, and Vietnamese in the past. Now, it’s time for Indian.”