Backstory

Vimala’s Curryblossom Café’s ties success to mission of supporting employees, community

vbridges@newsobserver.comApril 28, 2014 

Vimala Rajendran, owner of Vimala’s Curryblossom Café, in her kitchen preparing for the lunch rush on April 22.

BY VIRGINIA BRIDGES — vbridges@newsobserver.com

  • Advice from Vimala Rajendran

    • Don’t be shortsighted. In giving back, you get more.

    • Don’t compromise the quality of your food.

— When Vimala Rajendran first opened Vimala’s Curryblossom Cafe, she didn’t know how to operate a commercial kitchen.

“I knew how to make vast amounts of food with precision of taste. That is my skill,” she said. “Some of the people that were initially hired had to show me how to turn on the hood and the light.”

Since opening in spring 2010, however, the owner of the Indian restaurant has come a long way. Vimala’s Curryblossom Café has doubled its space and now has about 30 employees.

Rajendran grew up in Bombay, where she learned to cook. She married and moved to Carrboro, but ended up becoming a single mother of three after a divorce.

In 1994, she started cooking weekly community dinners in her home where she welcomed all and asked people to cover the cost of the food or make a donation to a good cause. In 2010, after being encouraged by a growing and steady community dinner crowd, she opened Curryblossom Cafe near Franklin Street in Chapel Hill.

She then turned to people in the community for a series of microloans that has allowed her to upfit, open and expand her business by adding a bar, seating and improve one of the restaurant’s two kitchens.

“When I started telling people on the streets of Carrboro and Chapel Hill that I am getting ready to open a restaurant, they said ‘tell us how I can help,’ ” she said.

About 30 people initially loaned her money, and Rajendran allowed the lenders to decide how much they’d let her borrow, along with the interest rate, she said.

Meanwhile, Rajendran has continued to use her time and business to establish various systems that contribute to the community, including sourcing from local farmers and other companies, and supporting nonprofit organizations and human interest causes.

Earlier this year, Vimala’s Curryblossom Cafe was recognized by the Chapel Hill-Carrboro Chamber of Commerce as the 2013 Mid-Size Business of the Year.

“Vimala’s pays its employees a living wage, its producers and investors are local, and the restaurant space serves as an incubator for artists as well as a community gathering/teaching/growing space,” the Chamber said in an email. “Vimala’s ‘everybody eats’ fund serves people in need – regardless of their ability to pay – a life-sustaining meal.”

The cafe also won the 2013 Pauli Murray Award, given annually by the Orange County Human Relations Commission to a business owner who serves the community with distinction in the pursuit of equality, justice and human rights for all residents.

Rajendran, however, isn’t one to rest on her laurels. This week she plans to fly to Washington, D.C., for a second time to advocate for increasing the minimum wage for tipped workers.

Employers are permitted to take a credit for a certain amount of tips toward the payment of minimum wage to their employees. From 2007 to 2009, the general minimum wage in the state increased from $6.15 to $7.25, while the required tipped minimum wage decreased one dollar to $2.13, according to the N.C Department of Labor. .

The Washington trip is associated with Restaurants Advancing Industry Standards in Employment, an organization that is advocating for improved wages and working conditions in the restaurant industry.

The organization’s membership includes 13,000 restaurant workers and about 100 “high-road” employers,” the organization’s website states.

Rajendran is among those employers who agree to pay their staff a living wage. Curryblossom Cafe’s base pay starts between $10 and $12 and is supplemented by tips that are split among the entire staff, Rajendran said.

A higher wage also translates into a higher tax payment, so residents can spend more and be active in the community.

Plus, she said, it’s the right thing to do.

“Owners have a choice to pay out or make a bigger profit,” she said. “It wouldn’t make any ethical sense to make a bigger profit and not pay out the staff.”

Bridges: 919-829-8917; Twitter: @virginiabridges

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