For Curry Up Now cofounder Akash Kapoor, American perception of Indian cuisine and its representation in restaurant segments needs advancing. And with his California-born brand of whimsical dishes in what he calls a “fine-casual” format, he is attempting to make that happen.
Opened in 2009 as a food truck before expanding to multiple trucks and then six brick-and-mortar locations, Curry Up Now is at the forefront of introducing diners to a different side of Indian cuisine.
“Traditionally, when you go to an Indian restaurant, you’re looking at an elephant on the window or a Taj Mahal on the wall. There are yellow walls, pink walls, [and] gaudy carpet, and we didn’t want that. It has to evolve; it has to go somewhere else,” Kapoor says. “That’s what we did. We decided to simplify it and put our food in a format that everybody can identify with and keep it around $10.”
Following a career in mortgage banking that was ultimately affected by the Great Recession, Kapoor and his wife, Rana, along with business partner Amir Hosseini, established Curry Up Now. They had virtually no foodservice experience and a business plan written on a napkin.
Inspired by Roy Choi’s groundbreaking Korean-Mexican food truck Kogi BBQ, Curry Up Now added Indian flavors to more familiar formats. It was a hit with customers from day one. Items like the Chicken Tikka Masala burrito, Naughty Naan—a flatbread of naan with cheese, onions, and jalapeños with chicken, lamb, or paneer—and deconstructed samosas combine Indian street fare with Mexican and Italian influences.
Today, two Curry Up Now locations (in San Jose and San Mateo, California) even sport attached bars that showcase Indian-inspired beverages. Although a part of the fast casual, the bar has its own branded name, Mortar & Pestle, plus an eclectic selection of cocktails.
The drinks vary slightly by location. At the San Jose restaurant, the Holi Bhang mixes coconut ghee–washed rum and rye with aquafaba (viscous water leftover from cooking beans), fennel syrup, lemon, and coriander-infused orange bitters. In San Mateo, the eponymous Mortar & Pestle combines bourbon, honey, orange, grapefruit, rosemary, and cardamom.
“Our food menu is very eclectic with Indian, Mexican, and Italian [influences], so for the bar menu, we wanted to do the same thing. We couldn’t just open an Irish pub,” Kapoor says. “It’s craft cocktails, very pre-Prohibition style, Moroccan ingredients, Turkish ingredients, with a little bit of dazzle.”
In developing food menu items, Kapoor didn’t have to look far for inspiration. He puts an updated spin on the traditional dishes he grew up eating, such as his father’s chana masala recipe and samosas. “On every corner of India, they have a street-food vendor selling samosas, but we do it with some meat in it,” he says.
Curry Up Now
FOUNDERS: Akash and Rana Kapoor,
HEADQUARTERS: San Francisco
YEAR STARTED: 2009
ANNUAL SALES: Undisclosed
TOTAL UNITS: 6, plus 4 food trucks
FRANCHISE UNITS: 0
Other items include Kathi rolls—house-made, egg-washed flatbread with onion and cilantro chutney—and Sexy Fries, an Indian take on poutine with sweet potato fries, cheese, and a choice of topping. And in true food-truck fashion, Curry Up Now even offers guests a “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” burrito wherein guests specify whether they want meat or not, but the rest of the items are a mystery.
“We’ll make it the way we want it, and no two burritos are the same,” Kapoor says. “What do people want from a food truck? They want crazy food. Food that doesn’t seem right, like, ‘Who thought of this?’”
While Curry Up Now has grown through company-owned stores to date, it is evaluating franchising through a recent partnership with Fransmart. The brand’s aggressive international growth plan—including potential locations in India—and the costs associated with opening stores makes franchising the more viable option, Kapoor says.
The concept has also been refined over the years. He says it has moved from a fast-casual model to more of a fine-casual format; customers still order at the counter, but runners bring items like napkins and water.
As part of its expansion plan, Curry Up Now acquired fast-casual Indian chain Tava Kitchen earlier this year. The brand converted the 1,800-square-foot Tava Kitchen in Alameda, California, into an innovation kitchen where Curry Up Now tests new products such as Indian ramen.
“We always wanted a Panda Express marries Chipotle model. That’s how Curry Up Now started. I’m going to do what Chipotle does, which is amazing speed and standardization, but I want to do what Panda does, which is live cooking,” Kapoor says. “Tava was doing what we wanted to do, so buying them really leapfrogs us to where we want to be.”
Curry Up Now will continue to open new corporate units while it also moves forward with franchising. Nevertheless, it has no plans to franchise existing or future Mortar & Pestle locations given the large menus and bar programs. Ideally, Kapoor says, 80 percent of store growth will come from franchising, while 20 percent will come from corporate-owned locations.
“I don’t want to sound cocky, but I think we’re going to be the ones who are going to lead, who are going to hold the torch,” Kapoor says. “I think America’s ready for it.”