How Rasa is introducing a whole new generation to Indian

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When business partners Sahil Rahman and Rahul Vinod opened the first location of Washington, D.C.-based fast-casual Indian restaurant Rasa in 2017, they had one goal: to honor the heritage of their fathers, who used to own traditional Indian restaurants together, while also shaking up the Indian restaurant category.

Now, five years later, Rahman and Vinod have opened three Rasa locations in the D.C. area and are looking for more opportunities to bring their Chipotle-style menu of Indian-American grains and greens bowls to more neighborhoods around the nation’s capital.

“Often we hear people say, ‘I don’t like curry’ or ‘Everything is too spicy for me,’” Vinod said. “We both have independently had thousands of experiences of bringing friends and classmates throughout the years to our fathers’ restaurants, because our relationship with Indian food was so different than what people thought we were having. And they were like, ‘Oh wow, I had no idea Indian food was like that!’”

It was these experiences of introducing friends to new cultural experiences that inspired Vinod and Rahman to create Rasa. But they wanted to do it differently and lose the formality of a traditional sit-down restaurant. They wanted their guests to be able to grab a quick bite to eat for lunch or even pick up a bowl to go.

“I think a lot of people’s association with Indian food is the great $10 lunch buffet, but when you eat that, you need a nap afterward,” Rahman said. “So, as were thinking about our menu, we were consciously thinking about how we build trust with our guests. … How do we make people less skeptical of Indian food? How do we shift our design and our model to make people comfortable?”

The result was a restaurant with airy interiors, modern artwork on the walls, and a colorful logo, encouraging guests to try something new. The personalized bowls are the heart of the menu, with ingredients like kebab, turmeric shrimp and chicken tikka. Sometimes, Rahman and Vinod will introduce a traditional Indian ingredient to the menu in a new way, like with the chai soft serve. Other times they will include ingredients never seen in Indian cuisine — like Brussels sprouts — as a nod to the local produce selection. 

In early March, Rasa said it had closed a series A financing round led by female-founded growth equity firm Rellevant Partners. A release said that the investment marks a “significant milestone” as the company plans for “aggressive growth” in D.C. and evaluates new market opportunities on the East Coast.

“We’re really excited about the opportunity to grow,” Rahman told Nation’s Restaurant News earlier this year. “It feels like Americans are ready for Indian cuisine in a way that that we’ve never seen before. … Our focus is on our existing locations, but we’re looking for more opportunities to share our meals with more people.”

Contact Joanna Fantozzi at [email protected]

Follow her on Twitter: @JoannaFantozzi

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