A Taste of Home: Popular restaurant Zyka puts community firstA selection of dishes from Zyka: The Taste Indian Restaurant at 1677 Scott Boulevard in greater Decatur. Photo by Dean Hesse.
About this series: This is Part 2 of our four-part “A Taste of Home” series. South Asian writer Anila Yoganathan and photographer Dean Hesse shine a new light on some of Decatur’s popular South Asian businesses. The Decatur area holds history of being a space for these businesses. As new development comes to the area and more people are discovering these businesses, Anila wanted to showcase the important role these businesses play for South Asians in Georgia but also throughout the South. To read Part 1, click here.
By Anila Yoganathan, contributor
Decatur, GA — It was a stroke of luck that Noor Fazal didn’t end up an engineer in India, but instead became the owner of the popular Indian restaurant in Decatur called Zyka.
“[I] gave my entrance exam, and they have a ranking system, so my number came as 376,” Fazal said. “And the admissions stop at 375.”
Fazal had two older brothers, one a doctor, another an accountant, and Fazal’s father was hopeful his third son would round out the trio by becoming an engineer. At the time those were the main three jobs in India, Fazal said. Nevertheless, it was as though fate had intervened and Fazal found a new path through catering college in Mumbai.
“When I actually joined catering college, when I came back to my hometown, people used to tell my dad, ‘What kind of girl’s work is he doing?’” Fazal said, noting that at the time, cooking was seen as a woman’s work.
Well, that “woman’s work” would lead Fazal to learning the ins and outs of the hospitality industry, giving him the expertise to eventually open Zyka.
The Indian restaurant located at 1677 Scott Blvd has been a staple in the South Asian community for over 25 years and its success in sustaining itself is one many restaurants in America have struggled to achieve since the profit margins are thin, making it difficult for restaurants to survive.
“We bought this property in 1996. The bank was hesitant to loan us [money] because I didn’t have the experience to run the business,” Fazal said. “Then we got the loan, and then the first thing they used to do is give me statistics.”
The statistics included how 90% of restaurants shut down in the first five years, 50% in the first year. Zyka has lasted about 26 years and is still going strong. To survive as long as he has in this business with not just one location in Decatur, but a second one also in Alpharetta, Fazal looked to his values and roots from back home.
“My take was like, if you look back home, you’ll see businesses, restaurants especially, surviving forever,” Fazal said. “I’m from a small town, Hyderabad (a state in India), has a small town, Nizamabad. I was just there, maybe a couple of months back. There’s this sweet shop, mithai shop, it’s been there for 70 years. Same taste…same consistency.”
Quality, consistency and loyalty to employees, customers and community: these values are the foundation of Zyka.
“The food tastes exactly the same. They haven’t compromised on the quality of the taste,” Jay Varma, a longtime Georgia resident and customer of Zyka, said.
Owning land in Decatur
Fazal completed his undergrad in hotel management in Mumbai before doing a post grad program in New Delhi at the Oberoi Intercontinental Hotel. After that, he moved back to Mumbai to work at the Oberoi Sheraton before eventually moving to New York in 1985. He lived there for about seven years, working at two different French restaurants, before moving to Texas around 1992.
Texas is a known hub for South Asians in America and back then, the metro Atlanta area did not have the same draw as Texas did. But setting up a restaurant in Texas wasn’t a good idea at the time, due to competitors in the market. Fazal realized that he was better off opening in an up-and-coming South Asian market, and he had a gut feeling that Atlanta would be the right fit.
In 1995 after moving to Decatur and looking at a number of properties, Fazal found a space located between Scott Boulevard and Church Street. The Decatur Church of Christ had recently vacated the building and while the location wasn’t set up for a restaurant, Fazal bought the property and opened up Zyka with a menu specifically delivering dishes native to the state of Hyderabad in India.
When initially looking at Decatur, Fazal knew he needed to find an area with a steady customer base. The local Ismaili Muslim population has a Jamatkhana (community center) in the area and the Cherians International Groceries store is also nearby. Fazal knew that the two would draw customers.
The investment has paid off. For one, Fazal has decision-making power over the land and multiple South Asian businesses have opened in the area since he arrived.
“When we came [here] there were only two restaurants, Indian Delights and us and after that I think we have 10 restaurants,” Fazal said. “The more restaurants you have, the better is business for us. Because when people are driving, they want to come to one area that has a lot of options.”
At one point, Zyka was on an island between two busy roads with multiple car dealerships around it. Today, those same properties have transformed into multiple apartment buildings. Over the years, Fazal has had multiple requests to sell the land and while he is focused on what is best for his business, he also considers what is best for his community.
“We have been offering this banquet hall (adjacent to the restaurant) for our community every Friday evening,” Fazal said. “Since they are there, I’m not doing anything. Money will come, these things (community)…take a priority.”
The height of the pandemic was incredibly detrimental to restaurants across the country and Zyka was not exempt. The restaurant had to set up a tent outside and serve take out orders. The catering side of the business had to stop completely and has just started opening back up.
During that time, Fazal didn’t fire a single employee. He said he’s had some employees with him since the day he opened who have worked with him for over 25 years. They were loyal to him during long hours on days with catering and even when other restaurants tried to poach them, Fazal said.
“They were there when I needed. Now it’s my turn to be sure that I am there when they need me,” Fazal said.
And while the business is still recovering, Fazal’s faith in his employees and business led him to open his second location for Zyka in October 2020 in Alpharetta. The area is where a large South Asian population is now located in metro Atlanta.
Fazal had always had plans to expand but in addition to issues with timing, he wanted to ensure the quality of the food and service wouldn’t deteriorate. The last thing he wants to do is mass produce and dilute the quality in his product. At the same time, there aren’t that many South Asian restaurants that have multiple locations.
“It’s a tradeoff. Do you want money or do you want your reputation? You have to earn your reputation. You can’t buy reputation,” Fazal said.
Hyderabadi cuisine and quality control
In the early days of the restaurant, Fazal used to come into work at around 6 or 7 a.m. and wouldn’t leave until 1 a.m. At one point he had moved to Alpharetta before realizing he needed to move back to the area in case he was needed at the restaurant.
In addition to drawing customers from the nearby community and businesses, Fazal said another factor that contributed to the business’ growth was an article in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution in 1997. The article even drew some American clientele.
Around 2000 when the South Asian population began to boom in metro Atlanta, Fazal watched his customer base grow exponentially from people working in the Atlanta area to students to families coming in from neighboring states such as Florida, Alabama and Tennessee.
And these customers didn’t just visit once. Over the years, Zyka has accumulated a following.
“I’ve seen people who were bachelors, they got married, they had kids, their kids come in, and they got married, we catered to their kids’ wedding, and they come with their kids,” Fazal said. “So it’s a generational restaurant.”
Fazal has taken great pains to ensure the quality of his food is just as high as when he opened in 1997. The menu has probably changed by about 20%, but the rest remains the same. He noted that if they mess with the menu too much, the quality can suffer.
Even when opening the restaurant, Fazal was cognizant about serving a cuisine he was familiar with and of which could provide the best quality. Cuisines can differ by region in the South Asian subcontinent and since he grew up in Hyderabad, Fazal knew he wanted to serve Hyderabadi cuisine.
“Mine is [a] very specific Hyderabadi cuisine. My menu is completely different from other restaurants,” Fazal said.
He even owns trademarks on the names of particular dishes that are popularly known in South Asian cuisine, including Chicken 65 and Matka (clay pot) Kulfi (South Asian ice cream). While other restaurants also list Chicken 65 on their menu, Fazal brushes it off, noting with humor that there has to be a Pepsi to compare to Coke.
He is very aware of customer service and wants to make sure anyone who comes in enjoys their meal. In the early days he used to make note of the food that people used to not eat, what they would throw away. He also takes into account any complaints from customers, relying on his South Asian customers especially to let him know if something is off.
“If something goes wrong, they’ll [South Asians/Desis] tell me like, ‘Boss, I didn’t like it. There’s something missing today.’ Most of my customers, they’ll give me my feedback right away,” Fazal said.
Every batch of food is checked by Fazal and three or four different people in the restaurant. The recipes are standardized in terms of ingredients, but the art is adding the spices, something that is as much based on consistency in recipe as it is on instinct.
“A brand of paprika can change the whole appearance of a butter chicken,” Fazal said, explaining how sometimes he has to check the color of the spice packets in the sunlight just to make sure it’s exactly what he needs. In addition to getting his spices from India, Fazal also buys from Cherians International Groceries store.
In South Asian cooking, spices serve the purpose of adding a variety of flavors to dishes but also serve medicinal properties, Fazal noted. Different spices can help with digestion, cooling the body down, and reducing inflammation. They also add the classic spicy heat to the food. And Fazal does not tone down that heat for American customers.
As popularity increases for ethnic restaurants in America, there can be a fear among the existing customers that the food might change to cater to the American palette, but Fazal’s focus is on maintaining the quality he promised his customers when he started.
Over time, the business has still attracted more Americans. Fazal said that these days, more Americans are traveling and are learning about authentic ethnic cuisines, which in turn brings new customers to the area.
“We went to Zyka this past week and there was a big table of about nine or 10 white students…just sitting and enjoying their meals and 30 years ago, you would not see that,” longtime customer Jay Varma said. “You would not see a lot of Americans…in a pretty hardcore Indian restaurant, serving spicy food.”
Zyka has two locations:
— Decatur: 1677 Scott Blvd, Decatur, GA 30033
— Alpharetta: 3800 Brookside Pkwy, Alpharetta, GA 30022
For more information, click here.
Want Decaturish delivered to your inbox every day? Sign up for our free newsletter by clicking here.
If you appreciate our work on this story, please become a paying supporter. For as little as $6 a month, you can help us keep you in the loop about your community.