Jason Pate – Tava Indian Kitchen

Tava Indian Kitchen owes its existence to a plane ride.

Jason Pate and Vijay Brihmadesam, friends from college, had no idea they would be on the same flight.  The odds were slim, given that they lived in different cities, yet they both ended up on a flight from Atlanta to Denver, and switched seats so they could sit together.

“We discussed how fortunate we felt about where we had landed in life, but that we were tired of running the rat race on Wall Street.  We wanted to work on something that creates jobs – especially in such a down economy – and makes people happy,” said Jason, reminiscing about their conversation.

The conversation ranged in breadth, but it ultimately turned to something they are both passionate about: Indian culture.

“We could think of no better way to achieve those goals, and bring more people into a culture we both love, than starting a restaurant.”

In fact, Tava Indian Kitchen is really the answer to a question – a question they asked on this plane ride.  Why don’t more people eat Indian food in the United States?  It turns out, there are a lot of reasons, and Jason and Vijay wanted to understand them all.

“At the start of this journey, we talked to a lot of people.  We reached out to friends, family, and even strangers on work flights to learn more about why they did or did not eat Indian food frequently.  We were constantly in conversation mode.  We wanted to find a solution that got to the heart of the problem and met people’s needs.  Only after we got to what we thought was the root of the problem, did we begin to design a solution,” said Pate, describing their development experience.

Out of this came Tava Indian Kitchen – or as many Yelp reviewers lovingly call it, the “Indian Chipotle.”

Tava, located in Palo Alto, brands itself as America’s gateway to Indian food.  It turns the tables on the stereotypes of / barriers to eating Indian food – that it’s unhealthy, heavy, not portable, too slow to eat, and too complicated to understand.  At Tava the dining experience is customizable each step of the way.  First, you pick your base (roti, rice bowl, or salad), then pick a protein, add some fresh toppings (vegetables), and “spice it up” with the hot sauce of your choice.  As their website says, it’s “fast, fresh, and flavorful.”  It’s also easy to understand, and frankly their website, with its pictures, descriptions and directions, makes it fun, too!

But having a conversation on a plane is a long way from having a physical restaurant (and it’s not a distance that a plane can help you cover, either!).

So how did Jason and Vijay turn this idea into reality?

“During the plane ride, we talked about what it would take for each of us to leave our stable careers.  To stop what we were doing and jump off the entrepreneurial cliff together,” Jason explained.  “We knew we needed a talented and well-rounded team if we had any shot of making this work, and both agreed: we’d need Hasnain involved.”

Jason emailed their mutual friend, Hasnain, the idea.  Three agonizing days passed with no response, and Jason began to doubt everything.

“Since I didn’t hear a response, I assumed he thought it was a terrible idea,” said Jason.  Without Hasnain there would be no team.  And without a team, there would be no Tava.  But on the third day, Hasnain wrote back – a three page e-mail with all the reasons why this was a great idea… and that they should make it happen!

Voila the Tava Team was formed!

Then the work began.  The Team collaborated with a professional chef to refine several of Vijay’s and Hasnain’s family recipes, and worked on the idea for four months, brainstorming the best way to make Indian food more accessible.

In April 2011, they did their first taste test in Atlanta with 50 people.  The feedback, even from those who had no experience with Indian food, was overwhelmingly positive.

Based upon this, Jason left his job with Bain in Atlanta and moved to California to work on Tava full-time.  Since none of the three Tava Team Members had experience opening a restaurant, they looked for a well-rounded advisory board to help with the process, ultimately putting together a group with extensive experience in finance and the restaurant industry.  The Team focused on asking the advisory board the right questions so they could ensure they followed all of the procedures for permits, inspections, etc., at each step of the process.

On February 27, 2012, ten months after its first taste test, Tava Indian Kitchen opened its doors.  With rave reviews on Yelp, unique marketing campaigns such as “The Search for the Golden Tavas” (the winners receive a year of free meals!), and talks of a second location within the next couple of months, Tava has started off strong.

It may sound like a smooth journey, but Jason recognizes how many things had to align to make this happen.  “There were a million reasons why this shouldn’t have worked out – but we were all in the right place at the right time for a reason.”

Jason’s ultimate goal?  “I want Tava to be known as America’s gateway to Indian food… the brand that made Indian food popular across America.”

I think he’s well on his way.

Jason’s Tips for Aspiring Entrepreneurs

  • Don’t be afraid to solicit feedback.
  • Surround yourself by people that you feel are smarter than you.
  • Trust your team.
  • Be cautious with sharing your idea, but not secretive.  The best way to develop your idea is to talk to as many people as possible.
  • Force yourself to face your mistakes.  Sit down and don’t let yourself walk away until you figure out what went wrong.  You need to learn from your mistakes.
  • Don’t move forward for forward’s sake.
  • Get to know your local (neighborhood!) market.
  • Be willing to jump into a situation where you don’t have all the answers
    (Corollary: Be comfortable saying “I don’t know… but I’m going to find out!”)

Jason, Vijay, and Hasnain are all graduates of Duke University.  Before co-founding Tava Indian Kitchen, Jason, Vijay, and Hasnain worked as consultants for Bain & Company. To learn more about Tava Indian Kitchen, visit its website, www.tavaindian.com, or check them out on Facebook at www.facebook.com/tavaindian.

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