By Hope Belli Tinney, Washington SBDC
MOUNT VERNON, Wash. – As Puja and Kummar Sharma watched firefighters battle the blaze destroying their seven-month-old restaurant, they thought it was a sign: Maybe they weren’t meant to own their own restaurant. But their community wasn’t ready to let the only Indian restaurant in Skagit County disappear.
The couple had closed two restaurants in the previous five years and was out of money, energy and hope. Kummar figured he would go back to a job in food service and Puja would take some time at home caring for their two young sons.
But almost immediately, friends and former customers urged them to find another space and reopen Taste of India.
“Every single person I talked to in Mount Vernon wanted us back,” Puja said. “We were getting so much love.” While they appreciated the support, they couldn’t afford to start over and they weren’t sure they wanted to.
City seeks downtown tenant
But months after the fire, the City of Mount Vernon issued a request for proposals (RFP) for a new tenant for a city-owned building on the riverfront. The space was about half the size of their previous restaurant, just 400 square feet, and would require a commercial kitchen.
Ellen Gamson, executive director of the Mount Vernon Downtown Association, immediately contacted the Sharmas and urged them to apply. She had helped them find the downtown space that had burned and now was excited about this new opportunity.
“They are wonderful people and they make wonderful food,” she said. “I just really thought this new location was a good fit for them and the community.”
Puja was wary but she knew Kummar missed creating a welcome space where they could share the food they loved. Starting over would mean taking on more debt, but she wanted to support Kummar’s dream. Maybe this could work, she thought.
Free small business advising
Then she looked at the RFP. The paperwork was overwhelming, Puja said. She attempted to work her way through it but had pretty much given up when Gamson called to check in.
When Gamson heard the Sharmas needed assistance she immediately called Tony Salas, a certified business advisor with the Washington Small Business Development Center (SBDC) and the Economic Development Alliance of Skagit County (EDASC).
Salas is one of more than two dozen SBDC certified business advisors working in communities across Washington to help entrepreneurs and business owners who want to start, grow or transition a business. SBDC advising is provided at no cost to the client, is confidential and is tailored to the needs of each client.
The Washington SBDC (http://wsbdc.org/) is hosted by Washington State University and receives funding from the U.S. Small Business Administration as well as other institutions of higher education and economic development. Salas’ work in Mount Vernon is supported by EDASC.
Detailed planning, purchasing expertise
In Salas’ first meeting with the Sharmas, they went over their business plan, blueprints for the new space, financial statements and tax returns from Taste of India. He broke down the proposal into discrete chunks so they could see what they had and what they were missing.
Then Salas set about helping the couple fill in the holes. Despite a three-day weekend and a bout with the flu, the polished application was delivered to the city, with hours to spare, just five days after that first meeting.
“If (Tony was) not there, I don’t think we would be open,” Puja said; the paperwork was too difficult.
The Sharmas found out in March that they had been selected as the city tenant and immediately began working toward an early summer grand opening. Salas continued to meet with them to share his experience and expertise on everything from where to buy kitchen equipment to menu suggestions and pricing.
“He’s a guy who keeps in touch with you,” Puja said. “If you need any help, he’s there.”
Growth in ratings, revenue
The new restaurant at 420 W. Gates St. feels like a good fit, Puja said. It’s a small space, but for now she and Kummar can handle it all. Kummar is the chef and she manages most of the noncooking tasks, including serving.
Yelp reviewers use words like “fantastic,” “awesome,” “top-notch” and “perfect place to impress (visitors)” to describe Taste of India, giving it a near-unanimous five-star rating. And at least one visitor discovered what Gamson and others in the community have known for years: “The people who run this place also seem really lovely.”
The financial projections Salas helped the Sharmas create have so far proven accurate, Puja said. In fact, they are doing a little better than projected. The fire wiped them out and they had to borrow quite a bit to get started again, she said, but that debt should be paid off soon.
The lesson from all this, she said, is don’t be a quitter: “When you are getting so much support from the community, you can’t be a quitter.”