Feeding a Dream

Taking Tex-Mex to Bangalore
by Elizabeth Bowden-David

Christopher Columbus, as the story goes, pursued a dream of India and landed on American shores. I, too, set out on a journey to India, but my dream was launched from American shores. Eight years ago, I moved with my Indian-born husband from California to the bustling IT hub of Bangalore. With one baby in a stroller and another on the way, we packed a detailed business plan, stacks of recipes, and high hopes. Today, we own and operate seven restaurants in the city. This is my version of the American Dream.

Some of the factors propelling such a radical move were a love of travel, a sense of curiosity, and a thirst for adventure. We had previously studied and worked in Europe and other parts of Asia and found the immersion exhilarating. The thought of raising our children to feel at home in two diverse cultures was another draw.

A more cold-eyed factor, but equally important, was the conclusion that we needed to take a bold step if we were to enjoy financial security years down the road. My parents’ retirement was comfortably funded by monthly pension and Social Security deposits, but it was a stretch to see it working out that way for many of us in the next generation. My husband and I believed we would need a very different plan to see us all the way through our golden years. We were willing to make sacrifices and work hard, but first we had to identify the right opportunity. Quite unexpectedly, we saw the opportunity we were looking for 9,000 miles away.

We knew that the business landscape of Bangalore was changing due to the city’s increasing integration with multinational corporations—especially US-based companies—yet there was a dearth of options for global cuisine. As my spouse put it, “All those software engineers need to eat!” We reasoned further, that the emergence of India as a powerful economy would be one of the dominant stories of our generation, and that if we put our minds to it, we could ride the wave of growth.

We both had earned global MBA degrees and amassed years of corporate experience – in the IT industry for him, in pharmaceuticals for me. However, aside from being avid foodies, we were relatively unfamiliar with the restaurant industry. Looking for ways to mitigate our risk, we first took a franchise with a globally known sandwich restaurant brand. Even at that point, our plan was to learn the ropes of the food business in India over several years, grow a base, and then craft a brand of our own.

As our ventures have matured, our corporate backgrounds have proven extremely valuable, especially in terms of marketing, business development, and budgeting. But starting off with that franchise was our best move. We got to make our mistakes—and of course, we made some—on a smaller scale before raising the stakes with our own brand. We also got the chance to forge our way through challenges such as labyrinthine regulations and a fickle infrastructure. A particularly vivid memory is the time we stood outside in the pitch darkness at 3:00am, huddled under an umbrella, trying to figure out how to repair a generator so our refrigerated stocks would not spoil during a power outage. Business school and corporate tenures had not prepared us for that!

During many late nights, whether up with generators or poring over spreadsheets, we found ourselves yearning for a heaping plate of nachos or a spicy burrito. Market research indicated that plenty of others in the city felt the same way, and so in 2011, when it was time to expand our ventures, Tex-Mex was the word. We named our brand Habanero. And while we do cater expats and travelers who are pining for enchiladas, our primary customer base is Indian. For that reason, nearly a third of our menu is comprised of vegetarian selections. Thankfully, our gamble and our efforts seem to be paying off. We’ve now opened the doors of three Habanero outlets in the city and have our eye on scaling up more widely.

Even as my roots here in India are growing deeper, I feel as deeply connected to my home country as ever. I’m a believer in the American Dream and will keep on pursuing my interpretation of it…here on the other side of the world.

Elizabeth Bowden-David, a native of Alabama, is a graduate of Thunderbird and co-owner of Habanero, Bangalore’s first Tex-Mex restaurant chain (http://www.habanero.in).

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