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Thursday, March 24, 2011

Kasa's Anamika Khanna and Tim Volkema on the Closure, Pop-Ups, and the Kati Roller Truck

Posted By on Thu, Mar 24, 2011 at 5:22 PM

Britney's last-minute venue change isn't the only disappointment hanging heavy on the Castro these days. Late last month, the owners of Kasa Indian Eatery ― which opened in the Castro in 2008 ― shuttered its year-old second restaurant, on Fillmore Street in the Marina/Cow Hollow. Writing on the Kasa blog, owner Tim Volkema made reference to his partners Suresh and Anamika Khanna, in a goodbye wrapped in a very honest assessment of what went wrong:

Kasa Castro was the first restaurant venture Anamika, Suresh, and I have ever participated in, and honestly we took its success for granted. We thought: provide delicious and unique food and good service at a reasonable price, and you'll make a profit. And amazingly we were right! Until we weren't.
But while 2010 proved a tough year for Kasa's owners (Anamika Khanna says the closure felt like a "miscarriage"), 2011 has been crowded with new projects.

click to enlarge Anamika Khanna. - KASA
  • Kasa
  • Anamika Khanna.

This month, Anamika Khanna ― who grew up in a Punjabi enclave in London ― began orchestrating a Wednesday-night $20 prix-fixe pop-up at the Corner ― all but one has been vegan. And three weeks ago, the Kasa partners joined dozens of other mobile vending hopefuls in a weekend camp-out to secure a good chance of getting permits to launch a food truck ― Kasa Indian: The Kati Roller ― in the Financial District. SFoodie had back-to-back phone conversations yesterday with Anamika Khanna and Tim Volkema about Kasa's present, past, and future.

SFoodie: Why go vegan for the pop-ups?

Anamika: I did vegan food for the first one, and for the second one I wanted to do authentic Punjabi food, with fish and so on. But after that, I just felt that for San Francisco, they could really benefit more from vegan than from Punjabi. It's really hard for vegans to go out and get an all-vegan meal somewhere. These are the first pop-ups that we've done, and the first night we were overwhelmed ― everybody just comes in at once! But we're trying to keep it casual. The first couple of pop-ups have been just Kasa fans following us, but over the last couple of weeks we've been picking up other customers, even chefs from other restaurants.

How long do you plan on doing them?

Anamika: We said we'd try it for the month of March, but they've been going so well the Corner suggested I keep going. So I don't know when we'll stop. The only problem is it's so much work!

And the Kati Roller truck? When do you think you'll have that up and running?

Anamika: The city is always up and down with their timing, so it's pretty hard to say. Do we start renting a truck, do we buy a truck ― we're literally going in circles. We've been looking at trucks for months now, but we already have the design, we have a menu.

What's the menu looking like?

Anamika: We'll have the kati rolls [we do at Kasa]. We won't do the thalis, but we'll probably have rice bowls, and definitely some Indian street food, like the little vegetable fritters ― pakoras ― and pav bhaji. We've done those here at the restaurant, they're a very authentic Indian street food, like an Indian sloppy Joe but vegetarian. Tim's been messing around with Sandwich Fridays in the Castro ― they've been happening every other Friday. We've done French baguettes with fillings inside.

Tim Volkema. - KASA
  • Kasa
  • Tim Volkema.

Sandwich Fridays? What kind have you been doing?

Tim: The way it started, there was this one client we did catering for who said, "All we get is sandwiches, but we want some Indian food. Can you do an Indian sandwich for us?" So we made sandwiches with things like chiken tikka masala. Anamika's made some chutney and cheese sandwiches, used that as a model, and we're seeing what works.

So are you in food truck limbo at this point?

Tim: I guess you could say that. We're actually trying to recover from our Marina closure ― that was a tough year for us financially. We're trying to figure out the appropriate way for financing the truck. And we still don't know what spots we'll get form the DPW, but we're confident that with the spots we applied for, we won't receive too much opposition.

Where have you applied?

Tim: The Financial District. We've had our eye on that area for some time, for a business in some form or other. We've always thought the Financial District needed something different like our food.

Do you foresee a certain amount of push-back from brick-and-mortar restaurants Downtown?

Tim: Well, we're interested in avoiding clear conflict ― we're a restaurant operator ourselves, and we wouldn't be too psyched if somebody parked a truck in the Castro in front of our door and started selling something similar. But if it's a burger place and we're selling Indian food, we don't think we'd be taking business away from them. And we've been talking with the truck community. We know the owners of Curry Up Now, I've met Jay [Hamada, owner of JapaCurry]. It's a community that seems to be open to newcomers.

Does something like the Fillmore Street closure make you rethink everything about what you've been doing, even with a new venture like the truck?

Tim: I tasted the food everyday in both of our locations, I'm petty confident our issue wasn't the food. We had a core group in the Marina, it was more a business model issue. We had a very large space and we just didn't have the demand. If you never get crowded, it's hard to get crowded ― crowds breed crowds. We spent the better part of our year banging our head against the wall. Although it was painful we learned a bunch of lessons. Call it tuition.

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