Vimala Rajendran can still smell the spices and flavors of her native India.
“I would walk for about five to six hours with a friend,” she said, “eating my way through the streets of Bombay during my first and second years of college, just soaking up knowledge and flavors and just soaking up people’s stories and talking to street vendors.”
She had no idea that decades later, she would infuse those smells into her cooking, she said. Her love of sharing food with others led to donation-based community dinners at her home in 1994 and has kept Vimala’s Curryblossom Cafe in business since 2010.
It’s been challenging, Rajendran says, but a community has supported her family’s mission of good, nutritious food for all, regardless of ability to pay. Anyone can come once a week for the free chef’s special – rice and either chicken, chickpeas or vegetable curry.
“Food came out of a passion to eat well, grow the food, cook more and give it all away,” she said. “I have always loved to – just like my parents – invite anyone who would come if I cooked a meal.”
A $100,000 Mission Main Street Grant from JPMorgan Chase Bank will go a long way toward putting the business on a solid path, she said.
Curryblossom Cafe was one of 20 small businesses nationwide to win a grant – out of 30,000 entries – and the only N.C. business to win since the program started in 2012. The goal is to increase public awareness of the role that small businesses play in local communities and to help them grow.
Her daughter Manju heard about the grant, Rajendran said, and they were able to get the 250 required votes from their Facebook followers at the last minute. They filled out the paperwork and forgot it about it, until they got the call.
The money has been a tremendous boost, Manju Rajendran said, and dream come true for her mother.
“In the beginning, we received so many generous microloans from so many community members, it was just a declaration of support that we needed to pull off the impossible,” she said. “It seems like a significant marker, five years into the project, that even a big corporation like JPMorgan Chase would recognize the uniqueness of my mother’s vision.”
Grant winners also will visit LinkedIn’s headquarters in Mountain View, Calif., said Brent Gore, division manager for Middle Market Banking and Specialized Industries for the Triangle and Eastern North Carolina Region. It’s good chance to network and learn new business skills, he said.
Curryblossom Cafe has a unique business model, Gore said.
“I think the thing that made her stand out ... is the sustainability of her business,” he said. “But her ‘everybody eats’ policy, that was unique and separated her. I believe that that was a big part of what we’ve been looking at, and that’s her work in giving back to her community.”
Rajendran, 56, said it was humbling to win, because she depends on the community as much as it depends on her.
A meal I’ve prepared has so much of my history on that plate.
Vimala’s Curryblossom Cafe opened with $80,000 raised by family, friends and neighbors who supported Rajendran’s vision of sustainable food, business and community. Nearly all of the ingredients are from local farmers, and all of the employees earn $10 to $12 an hour, plus tips.
The national minimum wage for workers who receive tips is $2.13 an hour, if the wage and tips equal at least the minimum wage of $7.25.
They’ve operated with a pretty low financial cushion, her son Rajeev Rajendran said, with the goal of building a solvent business. There's no way his mother would have turned away hungry people who couldn’t pay, although that has puzzled some advisers, he said.
“It feels really great that the way in which my mom is succeeding, it is not a compromise,” he said. “She is making the same recipes that she learned from her parents, and she’s really staying true to the values she grew up with.”
The business has racked up about $300,000 in debt over the years, Rajendran said. The grant will help repay some loans – the business still owes about $60,000 – and buy new kitchen equipment and dining room furniture.
They’ve renewed their five-year lease at The Courtyard on West Franklin Street, and the money also will aid their recent expansion into the ready-made food business. Meals are sold at the Carrboro Farmer’s Market and the Festival for the Eno, she said, and could be available soon at UNC.
The grant is not Curryblossom Cafe’s first honor. It was named the 2013 Chapel Hill-Carrboro Chamber of Commerce’s Mid-Size Business of the Year, and Rajendran received the Pauli Murray Award for community service with distinction in the pursuit of equality, justice and human rights.
She wants to repay her good fortune by helping other local, small businesses, Rajendran said. She also sees time, for herself, to write about her experiences – from her early days as a Canadian network and public TV reporter to finding her way out of domestic violence and into success as a chef and single mother of three now-adult children Rajeev, the youngest, and his sisters Manju and Anjali.
All three work at the restaurant – Anjali is the pastry chef, while Manju and Rajeev fill in where needed – along with Rajendran’s second husband and manager, Rush Greenslade.
Rajendran also wants to teach others about culture through food.
“A meal I’ve prepared has so much of my history on that plate,” she said. “I want to share that and teach about it, because there’s value in it for understanding one another.”
Her values are rooted in her middle-class upbringing as one of four children in suburban Bombay, India, where she learned from her parents a love of wholesome food and sharing with others.
She remembers collecting okra, as a child, from a local store owner’s garden. When her father found out, he made her take them back, she said. The store owner, impressed with her honesty, told her to pick as much as she wanted, she said.
She also remembers her mother’s masala dosa. The crispy crepes were only found in restaurants, but her mother decided to make them, she said, and made them well, passing the knowledge to her family. Rajendran learned about cooking from a young age, at her mother’s side.
While India remains in her heart, Rajendran said, home is in America now. She realized it on her last visit with family, while patronizing a coffee kiosk in an American-style mall.
“My sister asked me, how is (the coffee),” she said. “I choked with emotion, and I said, ‘It tastes like home,’ remembering the coffee (they brew) at Vimala’s Curryblossom Cafe.”