‘One kind of dream’: Nepalese families, businesses thrive in Berkeley

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Ciecie Chen/Staff

At first glance, the convenience store is modest. Just south of campus, the small shop offers fresh produce and steaming momos and samosas, prepared just behind the cashier’s counter.

Just past a couple of stairs, however, the store gives way to a vast basement that houses enough food products to rival any other local grocery stores. Crossing the length of the room, the inventory changes from craft beers and wines to imported turmeric, cumin and garam masala, earthy tapestries, incense and henna.

The Kathmandu Market and Deli is one of four Nepalese businesses owned by Deepak Singh and his family in Berkeley and Albany. In 1985, they started their venture as the East Bay’s first Nepalese grocery store on Solano Avenue, called Kathmandu Imports, according to Deepak Singh.

From there, his family opened another import store on Telegraph Avenue in the 1980s, the Kathmandu Restaurant on Solano Avenue in 1994 and Kathmandu Market and Deli last year at Dwight and Telegraph avenues, right next to the import store.

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“I love Berkeley,” Deepak Singh said. “My kids are all born here on Telegraph — on the corner where I started from.”

This one family’s network of Nepalese businesses on Telegraph Avenue is among several in Berkeley — down the street, there’s Mount Everest Restaurant, and on the other side of Berkeley, residents can frequent Taste of the Himalayas on Shattuck Avenue or Himalayan Flavors on University Avenue.

As each passing year brings new shops to Berkeley — advertising grand openings juxtaposed with “everything must go!” signs just a few doors down — small businesses often bear the worst of Berkeley’s high-pressure, high-rent, fast-paced business environment. But perhaps a collection of Nepalese businesses thriving in the city — each having been around for at least a decade — could reveal something about survival.

A family affair

With the help of about a dozen family members, Tapendra Thapa does his best to make sure Mount Everest Restaurant, his restaurant, runs like clockwork.  A lush, leafy hanging plant, nearly as old as the restaurant itself, drapes throughout the restaurant’s wooden infrastructure, and just to the right of the entrance is a massive print of Annapurna, a Nepalese mountain range.

Thapa’s father first opened the restaurant in 2010 and since then has opened two other restaurants, Hamro Aangan and Himalayan Tandoori & Curry House, both of which are in Albany.

Mount Everest Restaurant serves a mix of Nepalese and Indian food to attract customers from both communities, Thapa said.  Over a plate of chicken momos and a cup of chai, Thapa explained how he learned the ropes of the business from his father and helped his siblings as a child with various tasks in the kitchen. There has never been separation between the restaurant and their home.

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“It’s another home. We’re always here every day,” Thapa said. “If my dad comes in two hours, I take over for him and someone takes over for me. … You never get bored.”

Since his family first opened the restaurant, Thapa acknowledged that there has been a growing number of Nepalese restaurants in the city. Despite the existing competition, he hopes to open another restaurant in the near future, this time purely focusing on Nepalese cuisine.

“Our restaurants will be passed down to help future generations of our family,” Thapa said.

Community-driven

When business partners Dhruva Thapa, Rajen Thapa, Laxmi Chaudhary and Govind Shahi opened the first Taste of the Himalayas on Shattuck Avenue in 2005, they did not expect to be managing four restaurants in the Bay Area 13 years later.

Dhruva Thapa left his life on the East Coast in 2003 to work as kitchen staff for the now closed Curry Club. He was soon followed by his brother, Rajen Thapa. After nearly two years in the business, the management of Curry Club at the time offered the brothers a chance to lease the restaurant for six months.

After initially leasing the restaurant, the brothers made plans to buy it altogether. With the help of their other partners, Chaudhary and Shahi, the brothers later found an investor interested in funding their vision, and two years later, Taste of the Himalayas made its debut.

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From the original restaurant, Chaudhary branched off on her own to start Himalayan Flavors on University Avenue, while her son and daughter-in-law opened Taste of the Himalayas in Sausalito and San Rafael.

Though these businesses are not a chain or owned collectively, Dhruva Thapa said they are “interconnected.”

“We are from Nepal; we always want to grow together,” Dhruva Thapa said. “We are here for the one kind of dream, running independently but related in a way.”

And as this network expands, they make sure that the original business, Taste of the Himalayas, still stands.

So when Dhruva Thapa received news five months ago that his mother passed away in Nepal, the former English teacher-turned-chef braced himself to tell his staff the worst: He would have to put business on hold for 13 days — the number of days required to mourn in Nepalese tradition after the death of a loved one.

“Don’t worry,” was the staff’s adamant response.

For 14 days, cooks and staff members from various restaurants with ties to the original Taste of the Himalayas coordinated with each other to come in on their days off to help support the man who had first trained them years ago. They made sure that the restaurant would not close its doors.

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“They came because we had supported them in the past, and they all came back,” Dhruva Thapa said. “I really want to thank each and every one of them.”

Whether on Telegraph, Shattuck or University avenues, these Nepalese businesses owned by several different families continue to expand and find support throughout the community.

Daryn Singh said he believes that the Bay Area is one of the most diverse places in the country —  a diversity that creates a demand for Kathmandu products. Similarly, Dhruva Thapa said it is the community that has allowed Taste of the Himalayas to continue to survive until today.

In order to give back, every last Sunday of the month, Taste of the Himalayas hosts “Karma Kitchen,” an event where the staff and volunteers invite community members to enjoy their food for however much they wish to pay. The restaurant calls on customers to “pay it forward,” with the remaining profits of “Karma Kitchen” going to the volunteers’ charity of choice.

“The community always supports us, so we always support them,” Dhruva Thapa said.

Bringing it back home

Soon after they opened the doors of their Kathmandu Imports  store in Albany, Deepak Singh and his wife Lila Singh brought their business to Berkeley, where the couple spent the next 30 years cultivating their business and raising their three children.

And it’s Deepak Singh’s kids who were born and raised into the family business, Daryn and Daniel Singh, who have continued the legacy of their parents and now manage the four locations of the Kathmandu chain.

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The Singh family prides itself on its unique business model, which imports products manufactured by family and friends back in Nepal as opposed to buying from suppliers who tend to mark up prices, Daryn Singh said. For this reason, customers who enter their imports stores will rarely come across mass-produced items.

Honesty is a core value to the family business, Deepak Singh said, citing it as one of the reasons why their customers keep coming back.

“I’ve grown up literally behind the counter of the business, and I want to take it to the next level. He has paved the way for me,” Daryn Singh said, referring to his father. “To be a small business you have to put in a  lot of work, … but it’s very rewarding, and especially doing it with my family, I wouldn’t want it any other way.”

Francesca Munsayac is the lead race and diversity reporter. Contact her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @fcfm_dc.