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How the ‘dreamy stars aligned’ for Chai Pani

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How the ‘dreamy stars aligned’ for Chai Pani

Meherwan and Molly Irani. Photo by Tim Robison

Decatur, GA — Molly and Meherwan Irani, owners of Chai Pani Restaurant Group, were lying in bed one night in 2009 when inspiration struck. 

That late-night epiphany led to a nationally famous brand and Michelin-recommended restaurant in Atlanta. As is often the case with late-night epiphanies, the spark struck during a tough time for the couple.

After living in San Francisco together since the 1990s, Meherwan and Molly decided to move to Asheville, N.C. Meherwan was working in real estate then, while Molly took a year off from work to help raise their toddler. The family loved the small southern town in the mountains, but access to Indian food was limited. 

Shortly after the move, the 2008 housing crisis hit, and the couple was facing a dilemma. They didn’t want to leave Asheville, but Meherwan needed to figure out what he wanted to do now that the real estate business was drying up. Molly was coaching him and encouraged him to pursue his passions. 

That’s when the idea hit him. 

“He quite literally sat up in the middle of the night, like he was struck by a bolt of lightning and said, ‘I know what I want to do, I want to open an Indian Street Food restaurant in Asheville,’” Irani recounted. “I think my exact words were, ‘Are you out of your effing mind?’”

Fast-forward to 2023, and the Iranis are now the owners of the Chai Pani Restaurant Group, which includes locations in Asheville and Decatur, Botiwalla by Chai Pani in Asheville, Charlotte and Atlanta and the Spicewalla Brand. 

Chai Pani in Decatur recently earned critical acclaim in being recommended in the Atlanta Michelin Guide this fall. Decatur’s head chef Sahar Siddiqi was also nominated for the James Beard Foundation’s Best Chef in the Southeast. The Asheville location also won the Outstanding Restaurant Award by the James Beard Award Foundation. It is the second location the couple opened around 2013 after opening their first location in Asheville.

“Atlanta was really [at] the top of our list, and we were very excited to be able to open in a space where there was a really strong established Indian community,” Molly Irani said. The couple wanted to move to a larger metro market. They were also noticing more and more of their customers traveling in from Atlanta.

They never imagined their work would lead to national recognition so quickly. Especially when Molly herself never thought she would fall back in love with the restaurant industry. 

Molly and Meherwan’s love story was decades in the making and started, literally, at birth. 

‘The dreamy stars aligned’ 

Growing up, Molly’s family would travel from South Carolina to visit Meherwan’s hometown in India because they were followers of the same spiritual teacher, Meher Baba, who Meherwan is a descendant of. Born on the same day, the two avoided each other when they were young, as the women in the town speculated the two would eventually end up together.

Years later, Meherwan received a scholarship to the University of South Carolina and for extra money he would wait tables at the restaurant Molly’s family owned. During the summer after college, Molly came home to save money for a trip around the world. As they began working together, Molly said they fell in love. 

They would eventually build their life in San Francisco.

“In San Francisco, he could get by fulfilling that longing because there were such great dives and really authentic food around every street corner, and he indulged that for many years when we lived there,” Molly said. “And then when we moved to the southeast, the version of Indian food that was represented in restaurants at the time was just not what he grew up eating.”

Having grown up in her mother’s restaurant in South Carolina, Molly had seen the best and worst sides of the restaurant industry. Years later, she would find herself manning the cash register at her and Meherwan’s restaurant when they first opened Chai Pani in Asheville. 

But the couple didn’t just jump into the business without looking. Meherwan knew Molly’s concerns and started to do his own research on how to counteract some of the issues they might face. 

“He sold me on the business part of it, of like taking his MBA background and his years of working in marketing to apply that business knowledge with the flavor profile that he believed he could bring, and basically create a business that was poised for growth from the beginning,” Molly said. “So if all the dreamy stars aligned, and we hit all the marks, we would have a growth strategy out of…that phase of doing everything yourself where you burn out. And that ended up coming true much faster than our wildest dreams could have imagined.”

The couple worked together to build their first restaurant, drawing on their previous work experiences in other industries. Meherwan drew upon his background in sales to build the brand. Molly used her background in psychology and professional organizing to manage the staff.

Molly said they made all the mistakes they could’ve made, starting by hiring their first chef that didn’t quite understand the Indian palate. Meherwan, who had no professional training, had to step in and draw on his skills of being a home cook and lessons from his mother back in India. 

“Meherwan’s mom came from India, and she was on the ground in the kitchen training our first handful of chefs, ran the uttapam station on opening day when we ran out of food by two o’clock in the afternoon, sewed sari curtains to hang in the back. I mean, it was a real family affair,” Molly said. “Meherwan was learning on the job with her.”

Molly said that Meherwan found a new side of himself as he studied the craft of cooking. He worked on adapting the food he grew up with in a way that would be accessible to the western palate. 

At the same time, Molly was falling in love with her new job and discovering new things about herself, too. She found that she enjoyed the ability to grow and nurture the group’s team and create a hospitable environment for a diverse clientele, which has led to employee retention.

Meherwan’s skills began to attract attention in a way that the couple never imagined it would. In addition to the Asheville location being awarded best restaurant by the James Beard Foundation in 2022, Meherwan was nominated multiple times in the best chef in the Southeast category since 2014. 

He was also invited by Vice President Kamala Harris to cook for the State Department, and he brought along Siddiqi, Daniel Peach, the Group’s culinary director, and James Grogan, vice president of sales and marketing for Spicewalla, who started out as a line cook for the group on day one.

“These opportunities are like dreams come true, honestly, especially when I think we both accidentally fell in love with this business,” Molly said. “Meherwan was excited about the food, but I don’t think he expected he was going to launch this kind of career for himself.”

Indian street food restaurant Chai Pani Decatur in the city’s West Ponce Business District celebrated Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights, on Sunday, Nov. 12, 2023, with food and drink specials, complimentary henna, pani puri, fireworks and music from DJ VJ. Photo by Dean Hesse.

The space between street food and fine dining

Meherwan and Molly wanted to be intentional in the space they built to serve Indian street food. Molly said they wanted to build what felt like a middle space between Indian fine dining and “dive” restaurants. They also wanted to create a space where people outside the Indian community could also join in on the experience. 

The decor at Chai Pani is eye-popping with murals and bright colors. Irani said she and Meherwan wanted to draw on their experiences in India and build a space that was representative of the culture. It also helped that their brand director Michael Files had lived in Mumbai for a time and was able to see the vision the couple wanted to create.

It makes an impression on customers. 

“The first thing, when we enter that shop, Chai Pani Decatur, I can see the decoration and the wall paintings that just resemble kind of give you that atmosphere like how you would go to a store shop in India,” said Swati Sharma, a Georgia resident who moved to the United States in 2016 from India. “So that was one thing, like creating an ethnic atmosphere with the Indian tradition.”

Remmya Nair, a Georgia resident for about seven years, said the Iranis “have a great platform” to introduce Indian food to the masses.

“And my children enjoy it. My mother-in-law enjoys it,” Nair said. “So it really hits all the generational marks for that.”

As an interracial couple, the story and strategy behind Chai Pani centers around both Meherwan and Molly’s experiences with food in India and America. As they try to preserve the authenticity of their food journey, the couple is aware that for those who have not been exposed to Indian culture and food, it can be difficult to know what is authentic and what is appropriated.

Starting out in Asheville meant much of the staff they employed was young white Americans, and Molly and Meherwan wanted to ensure that the staff not only understood the vision of the restaurant, but also the culture the restaurant was derived from. 

The restaurant group offers to send its employees on a food tour of India after they’ve been employed for a year or longer.

“So we go on a food tour, and they really get immersed in the culture and see it for themselves so that when they come back in our spaces, they’re celebrating something that they understand, and they represent something that they understand better,” Irani said. 

Molly recalled how in Asheville, aunties would routinely barge into the kitchen to inquire about who was cooking the food. They would often be surprised to find young white men, trained by Meherwan’s mother, practicing their newly learned craft. 

She took that as a sign she and her partner were on the right path. 

“It’s sort of felt like lightning in a bottle from day one, and we just got lucky enough to jump on the train and grab this little whim of an idea that was passing by in the middle of the night,” Molly said. “We grabbed it and we feel incredibly blessed to be on this journey and to get to share this incredible cuisine and culture really with the world.”

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