Since 2004, Yelp has worked to connect millions of people to the best in local business. In that time we’ve met thousands of passionate small business owners, a group as hardworking and diverse as any you’ll find. In this series, we share stories of just some of the people who, through their commitment to building great local businesses, are sustaining the vibrant local communities we call home.
Lavanya Mahate had the “perfect job.” She was working as the director of the Women’s Business Center at the Salt Lake Chamber in Utah, putting her background in marketing and communications to good use, while getting to know her community better.
But something inside kept whispering that her passions lie elsewhere.
“It was that feeling of I need to do this,” she said. “I’ve done this; now what’s next?”
Over the course of several months, she gave in to that whisper. And that courage to leap into the unknown of a new career, to follow a passion she’s had since childhood, has since then propelled her through opening several successful businesses, including Saffron Valley, Dhanya Spices & Groceries and Biscotts near Salt Lake City, with more in the works.
“Every step of the way I get a lot of opportunities. Some I take; some I don’t,” Mahate said. “The ones that I feel very passionate about I take, and they lead me to the next thing.”
Mahate’s passion is sharing her love of Indian cuisine and the exciting spices that go into it.
“I wanted to bring diverse kinds of foods from India to the area,” she said. “Indian food is so much more than naan and curry.”
One of her fondest memories from childhood in Southern India is everyone sitting around the table, enjoying food.
When she was six years old, she would sneak into the kitchen and make fudge with sugar and ghee. “I remember all my brothers and sisters and friends enjoying it and appreciating me.”
And when she decided to jump into a career in Indian food, she started with the basic ingredients — the spices. She sold spice blends under the name East India Pantry at a local farmers market in 2010.
From her success with that, she opened Saffron Valley, a restaurant specializing in fast-casual Indian street food. And since then she has also expanded into Saffron Valley East India Cafe, which focuses on Old India of the 1920s; Saffron Valley Sugar House, part-restaurant, market and chai house; Biscotts, a coffee/chai house with pastries; a second Biscotts location; and Dhanya Spices & Groceries.
In the future she wants to open a culinary kitchen to train refugees and immigrants as well as to continue to update and improve her existing concepts.
“It’s not really perfection but progress that matters,” she said. “We’ll keep growing because if you’re not growing, you’re shrinking.”
And her experience has helped her learn some important lessons that she feels anyone should know when exploring a culinary career:
- “One of the keys to our success is knowing the local community so well.” Specialized Indian food was lacking in the area when she started her businesses.
- Seek out constructive customer feedback.
- “You definitely need to have that passion … But you don’t need to be an expert in everything.” Find other experts, including a good accountant and attorney, to bring onboard.
- Similarly, seek out local resources. In her case, this included her previous employer, the Women’s Business Center at the Salt Lake Chamber. “More people want to help than you think,” she said.
And if you’re lucky, you will find something you’re as passionate about as Mahate is.
“I don’t consider this as work. It’s just part of my life,” she said. “Every restaurant is an extension of my home.”