What does it take to open a restaurant? To Molly and Merherwan Irani, the owners of Chai Pani, the charming Indian chaat restaurant on Battery Park Avenue in downtown Asheville, it takes a supportive community, a lot of patience — and perhaps a dose of crazy.
Molly and Meherwan, it seems, were destined to meet at some point. Their families knew each other, for one, and the two were born on the same day of the same year, within a few hours of each other (albeit in separate countries). “Our parents used to joke that there was some connection," says Molly.
When Meherwan came to the states from India, he worked at a restaurant that Molly's family owned to put himself through graduate school. The two met, became separated, then, like every good love story, found each other again and "have been together ever since," says Meherwan. "How long has that been?" he asks, puzzled, turning toward his wife. "A long time," she answers, laughing.
The two had a little girl, and Meherwan eventually started a career in high-end real estate — then had the foresight to realize that it was time to get out.
The couple were driving home late at night from a family trip when Merherwan, introspective in the way that long, dark car trips can inspire, suddenly revealed to Molly that he needed an exit strategy. Sure enough, the market crashed not long after that.
"It was the first time in my life when I said that I needed to do something else. I'd been in sales and marketing for 14 years. I was good at what I did, making a living and enjoying my work — but it was never a passion," Meherwan says. "I always looked at people that had a passion like they were the lucky ones."
Molly asked Merherwan to think hard about what he was passionate about. "We're about to turn 40, and this is your chance," she urged. "You have to do it, you've got to go for it."
One night, some time not long after, Meherwan sat straight up in bed and said that, given the chance to do anything, he would open a chaat house in Asheville.
Molly, who had watched her parents' marriage crumble due to the pressures of the restaurant business, was unfortunately none too pleased. "After all of this pep talk about the 'find your bliss' thing, then he comes out and says he wants to open a restaurant," she says laughing. "I said ‘What?! Are you crazy?! All of that follow your bliss stuff — I didn't mean it!'"
To prove to Molly that their restaurant would be different, Meherwan set out to produce a business plan. "Then he went into this phase where it was feverish," says Molly. "It was like the mad artist had found his calling. He would go out in a suit every morning, and then come home and stay up until three in the morning — our walls were plastered with business plans and sketches. It was like this thing had been waiting to come out of him his whole life," she recalls.
Merherwan managed to turn out a fairly airtight business plan in a crazily short amount of time — 100 pages of plans in 30 days, to be exact. He had noticed that fast-food and comfort-food sales were going through the roof, even as the stock market was falling, so, he thought, “Why not healthy, affordable fast food?”
After months and months of honing the plan, Molly was finally convinced, and the couple worked to secure micro-loans from friends in order to avoid dealing with banks in the wake of a faltering economy.
The couple stumbled upon the building at 22 Battery Park that Chai Pani currently occupies fairly quickly. After inking the lease, they set about scrubbing years of grime from a building that had housed a series of restaurants for several decades, realizing quickly that a fairly major overhaul was in order. With money running perilously low, they had to do it quickly — and with as much help as possible.
The crew that showed up to help included a nurse, a man who had just received a doctorate in psychology, a full-time teacher and a successful contractor willing to do some extra late-night work for later (and little) pay — some of it in food.
"This crew of people that worked with us, our friends, they were working in there day and night, degreasing and scrubbing and plumbing and all of that stuff for a month for practically nothing," says Molly, adding that some of those who helped are still being paid in free food — "Or dosa (savory pancakes) dollars," Meherwan jokes. "People love their dosa dollars."
"It was a team effort, completely,” Molly says. “This place was built the old-fashioned way, with a group of friends who came together and had a vision — it was really his vision," she says, gesturing toward her husband. "The way we executed it was with this team of people, and they're all still here helping us run the place."
"And I think that we have the most overqualified team of people working here for us," says Meherwan, as the full-time teacher-now-turned-partner sweeps the patio. "It's funny," he muses, “when I left India, my dad gave me some advice. He said, 'When you get to America, never forget to always be nice to everybody, especially to servers and waiters. You never know, the guy who's waiting on you today could be the surgeon that's putting himself through medical college that will save your life one day."
"Chai Pani is a community-built restaurant," says Molly. "People came together and helped build this place, and many have stayed on to run the place, because they feel ownership." The Iranis think that is part of what gives Chai Pani such a neighborhood feel. It's an aura they say is commented on by the customers who come in for the restaurant's brand of healthy, Indian street food.
"To me, it defines what this restaurant has become. If we didn't start the way we had, I don't think this restaurant would feel and operate the way that it does now," says Meherwan.
Mackensy Lunsford can be reached at email@example.com. For more information about Chai Pani, visit chaipani.net