CHAPEL HILL — From the dining room, you can see Vimala Rajendran at work.
A scarf around her hair, she moves swiftly; plating up samosas, inspecting dishes and waving to visitors.
She's been cooking Indian food out of her home for 18 years, but now Rajendran's food has a home of its own.
And while there is only one name on the sign outside Vimala's Curryblossom Café, there is a community behind the new restaurant in The Courtyard.
"When Vimala cooks, everybody eats" has been Rajendran's mantra. The menu lists prices, but she says anyone can eat at the restaurant regardless of their ability to pay.
"God has seen me through so many adversities," she said. "This is not something that came out of a business plan so much as [it's] community supported."
The financing for the cafe, which gets nearly all its food from local growers, has come almost entirely from friends and neighbors who pledged $80,000 in five days to fund the opening.
"As a poor family, we have started a restaurant purely on microloans and donations," said Manju Rajendran, Vimala's daughter. "It's kind of staggering."
Cooking has been a constant in Vimala Rajendran's life. Growing up in Bombay, she remembers always being hungry. "My mother never had enough food on time prepared for me, so I thought if I participated in the cooking there would be food on time for me."
Her mom gave her vegetables to chop, cardamom to shell and before long she was creating her own meals.
"[It] became my science education, my chemistry education, math education and language education all at once," she said. "If I saw something, I wanted to try it. If I tried something, I wanted to make it."
Her family didn't own a refrigerator. Rajendran ate only fresh local food.
"It was always seasonal, which meant we knew the growers; we knew the sellers," she said. "There was no middle man in trade. Everything tasted better, and our immune systems were perfect."
Her culinary foundation stayed with Rajendran as she settled in Chapel Hill with her then-husband.
Cooking for a living
Rajendran eventually became a single mother to three teenage children. With her neighbors' encouragement, she began catering to pay the rent. Her business soon grew into a neighborhood network of more than 400 people who would visit her home regularly for dinner. "I remember being amazed that she could pull that off under the circumstances," said Claire Lorch, a former neighbor from Elkin Hills in Chapel Hill. "The kitchen was so tiny ... and yet she managed to whip up these incredible meals while taking care of her kids."
"My community drew close to me, and I drew close to my community," Rajendran said.
Just as the community supported her, Manju Rajendran says she and her mother want to support their workers by including them in everything from the menu to how the kitchen's run.
"It's a way of sustaining our community and creating a new South, a new Southern culture that embraces immigrants ... that treats food service workers as important decision makers," she said. "It's a principled practice we can feel good about."
The new owners of The Courtyard's retail space hope Vimala's Curryblossom Cafe helps attract more people to West Franklin Street.
"They have had a wonderful following," said John Weigle, president of The Dilweg Cos. "Their clientele has been tremendous."
"I don't take lightly that we are the anchor tenant and part of the process to revitalize West Franklin Street," Rajendran said. "We believe in justice being at the heart of our own life, and we want to live it out in business."