Best friends Sahil Rahman and Rahul Vinod first came up with the idea for their Indian fast-casual restaurant in high school.
Now, that kernel of an idea is Rasa, a three-unit chain headquartered in Washington, D.C. that just received a cash infusion to help it grow.
Details of the investment from Rellevant Partners, led by Janice Meyer and Jessica Kates, were not disclosed. But the pair said it will allow the chain to add units along the East Coast, add new technology and more.
“It’s a significant amount of capital,” Rahman said.
The pair opened the first Rasa (which means “the essence of” or “getting to the core of something” in Sanskit and is also a combination of the founder’s first names) at the end of 2017 after a couple of years of fundraising and concept creation.
Rahman and Vinod’s fathers, both immigrants from India, have operated restaurants in the area for decades.
“We grew up in and around Indian restaurants,” Vinod said. “People were unfamiliar with that food. We would bring our friends and colleagues to our fathers’ restaurants. Time and time again they would leave almost evangelized by the experience … We always wondered why more people haven’t had the same experience with Indian food we do.”
So, the two created Rasa, which tries to be “both authentic and accessible,” Rahman said.
Dishes are flavorful and nuanced but feature Americanized menu names such as Tikka Chance on Me (chicken tikka with tomato-garlic sauce, basmati rice, sauteed spinach, pickled radish, kachumber, pickled onion, toasted cumin yogurt and mint-cilantro chutney) or Goa Your Own Way (spiced beef, coconut-ginger sauce, basmati rice, green beans, pickled onion, mint-cilantro chutney and roasted lentils).
Given the complexity of Rasa’s recipes, its founders are exploring the best operational options as the brand expands. That might include a commissary approach or a hybrid operation in which suppliers, for example, provide meat marinated to the chain’s specifications.
“It’s something we continue to evaluate,” Vinod said.
The shop’s interiors are bright, airy and vibrant. The chain also serves wine, beer and cocktails such as Masala Gin and Tonic and Spicy Mumbai Mule.
“We realized the biggest challenge was trying to eliminate a lot of barriers to entry for Indian cuisine,” Rahman said. “They were intimidating for a non-Indian when you walked in … For us, we picked the flavors we’ve grown up with but we did make it more accessible. Instead of saag it’s sauteed spinach. It allows people to feel more welcome and safe dipping a toe in the water.”
Rasa’s founders got to know Rellevant Partners after Meyer’s son became a frequent customer at the first location.
“Rasa’s unique brand fills a major void in the industry,” Meyer said in a statement. “The quality, flavor profile and affordability of its offerings positions the company to become the clear leader in the category.
Rasa’s current locations range from 1,400- to 2,300-square-feet. Dine-in appears to be rebounding after the pandemic shifted consumer behavior, the founders said.
Over the years, many concepts have claimed to be the “Chipotle of Indian food.”
Rahman said the climate finally feels right for such a breakout concept.
“Until very recently, I don’t think the American palate was really open to Indian cuisine and culture in the way it is today,” he said. “There have been a few people who tried. What’s been missing is a brand component, and a younger generation of brand that’s able to speak the language.”
Members help make our journalism possible. Become a Restaurant Business member today and unlock exclusive benefits, including unlimited access to all of our content. Sign up here.