When Anamika Khanna cofounded Kasa Indian Eatery in San Francisco in 2008, she wanted to start a revolution: She wanted Americans to fall in love with Indian cuisine. But long before entering the fast-casual scene, Khanna held a deep passion for food. Growing up in a poorer neighborhood in London, Khanna loved to cook.
“I always loved food, and actually my mother was very supportive and encouraged me to go to culinary school, … but coming from the projects, I really wanted to make sure I had a stable, professional career that I could count on,” she says.
She studied hard and attended the prestigious London School of Economics. But as she began working as a lawyer, Khanna realized she did not want to commit to the profession long term. “Although I enjoyed it, I actually hated the idea of doing it forever, and so I quit. I decided life was just too short,” she adds.
Around that same time, Khanna met her future husband, married, and moved to the Bay Area. She worked as a stay-at-home mom raising their two children for several years before she and business partner Tim Volkema decided to start Kasa. The two perfectly complemented each other: Khanna the recipes and the brand while Volkema managed the business side.
The initial reaction was overwhelmingly positive with lines out the door. Khanna recalls that at one point they left a note on the door and closed temporarily to reassess how to handle such sizeable demand.
Volkema eventually moved back to the East Coast, but Kasa has continued to grow under Khanna’s direction with two locations in San Francisco and a catering arm to the business.
“Before the whole fast-casual scene exploded, we were already in love with it. Mostly, the pace of it was really interesting to me. It fits my personality, it’s vibrant, it’s energetic, there’s movement, you’ve got an open kitchen. It’s quite exciting,” Khanna says. “Indian food is one of the greatest global cuisines of the world, and it was astounding to me that America hadn’t fallen in love with it the same way London or England had. So I really wanted to lead that revolution to get America addicted to Indian food and fall in love. We needed to reach numbers, and the fast-casual scene for us is a way to reach a broader, wider audience.”
At the same time, Khanna says Kasa did have to make some tweaks to speed up throughput. Certain traditional Indian foods are cooked for long periods, allowing the spices to truly brighten a dish. To save on time, Khanna purposely selected dishes that were full of flavor, but not too complicated.
The core menu features three carriers: Kati Rolls (Indian Wraps), Thali (combination plates), and Super Kati Rolls, which are essentially burritos. (Khanna added the larger, burrito option in response to customer feedback. She adds that women often lean toward the Kati and men prefer the burrito.) All three options can be filled with entrées like Lamb Curry, Saag Paneer, and Gobi Aloo—a cauliflower-potato dish cooked with spices like curry.
Given Kasa’s streamlined menu, Khanna sees potential to ramp up the brand’s growth, either through franchising or private equity. And although it has been documented that women have a more difficult time accessing capital than men, she is reluctant to label her own experience as something universal to all female restaurateurs.
“Confidence is just a huge one that I had to personally overcome, and I don’t think you can get into this business if you are not able to be confident and candid. Whether it’s receiving feedback, negotiating prices, you really have to have that confidence,” Khanna says.
She adds that whenever she begins to doubt herself she remembers an anecdote involving a job ad. A man sees the listing and feels confident that he meets six of the 10 qualifications, whereas a woman chooses not to apply because she only meets six of the 10 qualifications. She also reminds herself of all that she and the Kasa team have already accomplished.
“Time and time again I’ve found that … if I put my head out of the water and look around and [realize] I’ve outlasted a number of restaurants here,” she says.
By Nicole Duncan