Atlanta Orders In: Indian street-food spots Chai Pani, Botiwalla sticking to takeout

‘We have a survive until Dec. 31 plan in place,’ chef-owner says
The family package for four from Chai Pani includes a choice of curry, plus dal, rice, vegetable raita, desi slaw and naan. CONTRIBUTED BY PAULA PONTES

The family package for four from Chai Pani includes a choice of curry, plus dal, rice, vegetable raita, desi slaw and naan. CONTRIBUTED BY PAULA PONTES

Six months ago, Meherwan Irani traveled to India on an extended food tour with fellow chefs Vishwest Bhatt of Snackbar in Oxford, Mississippi, and Cheetie Kumar of Garland in Raleigh, North Carolina. As they walked leisurely among bazaars, snacked on chaat and chowed down on aromatic curries, little did these nationally esteemed culinarians realize that their livelihoods were about to change drastically.

“As we were traveling back, I remember seeing a news blip about the coronavirus,” said Irani, who operates Chai Pani Restaurant Group with his wife, Molly.

The Iranis went ahead with the March 9 relaunch of Indian street food concept Chai Pani after fully remodeling the Decatur restaurant. One week later, they shut down the dining room.

Besides Chai Pani in Decatur, the Asheville, North Carolina-based group runs Botiwalla at Ponce City Market and a Botiwalla outpost at Alpharetta City Center in metro Atlanta. The pandemic prompted the group to switch to takeout only at both Chai Pani locations. They closed the Botiwalla stall at Ponce City after deeming the environment at the food hall too much of a safety risk. They shuttered Botiwalla in Alpharetta after two weeks of attempting carryout-only there. In early April, they suspended operations at all of the restaurants.

“It was clear this wasn’t going to be over in a matter of weeks or months,” Irani said.

Meherwan Irani is executive chef of Decatur Indian street food spot Chai Pani. CONTRIBUTED BY CHAI PANI

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The group furloughed all 300 employees, except the core management team, whose members were tasked to devise safety, economic and business survival plans. One team applied for loans. Another created health and safety protocols. A third developed a viable takeout menu. “We have a survive until Dec. 31 plan in place,” he said.

The restaurants began reopening under a new takeout-only model in mid-June. There are no plans to add on-premises dining anytime soon. “It’s not going to happen until there is a publicly available vaccine,” Irani said.

Besides having casual restaurants that lend themselves to takeout, Irani pointed to other positives that have given the business a boost during the pandemic. Sales for their spice brand, Spicewalla, have quadrupled compared with pre-pandemic days. "Everyone is a home cook, suddenly, and interested in spices," Irani said.

Another bright spot was a weeklong online auction in late March to support the group’s employee relief fund. Every item up for bidding was donated by employees. “It was amazing,” Irani said. “We had people volunteer photography lessons, dinners in your home, hoodies, sweatshirts, handicrafts. Each team member was contributing.”

The auction netted $25,000, which was distributed among all employees who submitted an application.

While Chai Pani Restaurant Group has succeeded in overcoming plenty of challenges this year, the future of Botiwalla in Alpharetta is unknown, because of stalled rent negotiations with the landlord. Also, the restaurant group has learned that its Buxton Hall Barbecue in Asheville is not as easy a sell for takeout, compared with its other concepts. “Barbecue is about a nostalgic experience,” Irani explained. “Being in the space informs the style of barbecue, the history of barbecue. It’s an experience. That’s why people come in.”

Chai Pani offers an abbreviated takeout menu of Indian favorites, including saag paneer (left) and lamb vindaloo (right), with fresh naan and basmati rice. CONTRIBUTED BY PAULA PONTES

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Last week, a fire at Buxton Hall forced the restaurant to close temporarily, days after having reopened for takeout.

Irani takes the setbacks in stride. “This is how we operate all the time,” he said. “Restaurants are constantly getting hit with one thing or the other. It is the business.”

And, he is determined to see things through. “I’m optimistic that our restaurants will reopen, rebuild,” he said. “And, I actually feel there’s a moral and ethical imperative to do so.”

Restaurants are what “knits the community together,” Irani said. “What gives you an indication of a vibrant, bustling community are the restaurants and bars. That’s what makes a community a community. Restaurants are key. Without that space, where is that going to happen? We have to come back.”


Menu: abbreviated menu focused on Indian street food

What's new: family package for four ($45), includes choice of entree plus dal, rice, vegetable raita, desi slaw and naan

Alcohol: beer, wine, 1-liter batched cocktails

What I ordered: family package for four, with lamb vindaloo as entree. The lamb vindaloo was tangy, heat-laden and delightfully heady, with fragrant spices. With a quart of rice, a pint of dal, half-pints of raita and slaw, and four pieces of fresh, warm naan, the meal was adequately portioned to feed four adults.

Service options: order online or via phone; delivery available through Uber Eats, DoorDash and Postmates; contactless payment; curbside pickup available

Safety protocols: following standard guidelines; all employees wear face coverings and gloves; temperature log for employees; employees separated into two teams, and only work shifts with members of their team; customers not permitted inside restaurant; no outdoor seating

Address, phone: 406 W. Ponce de Leon Ave., Decatur; 404-378-4030

Hours: 5-9 p.m. Wednesdays-Fridays, 11:30 a.m.-9 p.m. Saturdays-Sundays

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