By James Johnson
Hungry Fayetteville resident Teresa Dagat spent the first few minutes of her lunch break on Wednesday, sitting in a parked car contemplating one of life’s most persistent questions: Indian or Japanese?
Dagat said that her new job was located near the quaint Cliffdale Road adjacent shopping center, which served as home to two of the most talked about restaurants in town, the Bombay Bistro and the Sakura Restaurant, located in suites 1101 and 1109, respectively.
“I’m not sure where we’re going to eat yet, I’m always too indecisive,” Dagat said between glances at her phone. “I’m waiting on a friend (to text me back) and she’ll be the deciding factor. I haven’t been to either yet, but I have heard great things about both, you know? It’s better than fast food and I always like to try something different.”
While both restaurants serve two very different types of dishes and celebrate two very distant cultures, the two have more in common than just an address.
Like Bombay Bistro, the Sakura Restaurant was purchased by its owners only after the first owners gave up. Owners Eva Freeman, her brother Tung-Mei “Tommy” Chou and business partner Judy Gin took over Sakura, which first opened in 1995, in 2012. Freeman said she had worked in the restaurant industry for a long time, before retiring, but was tempted to return when longtime friend Gin had approached her about helping her run Sakura.
“After the (original) owner retired, my friend Judy said, ‘come here,’ because the place already had very good business. It is really stress free,” Freeman said. “I am kind of still retired. No pressure. Business is good. I don’t care if we make a lot of money, we just have fun. I watch lunch and Gin watches dinner.”
For Bombay Bistro’s owner Kanila Kishan and her husband Kumar, they had a bit more of an uphill battle to get their restaurant to where it is today. According to Kumar, the previous owner did not have the time to give the restaurant the attention it needed to flourish or stay clean and so he and his wife had to essentially throw everything out and start from scratch when they took over the restaurant in 2005. Kumar said that taking over Bombay Bistro was as much a second chance for them as it was for the restaurant.
“What happened 11 years ago, was that I had managed a property in South Carolina, a motel and some dishonest people had become involved. I lost $130,000 of mine and my in-laws money. We had nothing after that,” Kumar said. “At that time Bombay Bistro was owned by another couple and they had trouble with the chef. One of our friends lives here in Fayetteville and they asked us to come work for the previous owner. After only two months of working with them, they said, ‘we need you here, we can’t always be here all of the time.’ This place was literally run down and made us an offer to buy it.”
After some thought, Kanila sought a loan from her parents, who were still understandably unhappy about the loss of the motel. Her parents agreed to give the two the money, on the condition that Kanila be named the sole proprietor, a condition that Kumar was more than happy to meet.
“I don’t even get paid,” he joked. “My wife is the 100 percent owner. Without her, I wouldn’t be here.”
Since taking over the reigns, Kumar said that the restaurant’s success can be attributed almost entirely to a steady stream of regulars, who have made having lunch and dinner part of their weekly, monthly and sometimes daily routines. This is another area the two restaurants appear to have in common.
“I’d say 80 percent of our customers are regulars,” said Freeman with a smile. “The mayor is a regular here, all kinds of people come here just because they hear about our service. Every business is tough and you have to stay on top of it constantly. You want to stay clean and we want to advance our business. If you don’t advance you are behind. We give 100 percent good service to customers. You can’t just lay back. You have to make sure people have a good time so that they want to come back. We can’t depend on the Internet to get us customers. We don’t even know how to use computers, so we have to have other things to make up for it, such as friendly service. We treat everyone like they are in our home.”
Recently, Sakura has taken its dedication to making its customers feel at home even further, by offering customers the ability to have one of their chefs go to their homes and prepare their food on the spot.
“We are just trying it out to see how people like it,” Freeman said. “No business is guaranteed, so you have to take chances and try new things. Advance your business.”
For Bombay Bistro, “trying new things” means a constantly changing menu. Unlike most restaurants, Kumar says that their menu is always evolving, with different items being prepared each day. Kanila, he said, is addicted to cookbooks and cooking shows and has a box filled with hundreds of flash cards, each with a different Indian recipe. If a recipe is well liked, it gets added to the restaurant’s regular rotation, though there are some items which will likely always be available.
“Everybody loves the samosas,” Kumar said. “My wife makes 500 every week. That is how much we sell. People travel from other states to eat these. I have been told that people can’t find our food anywhere. People who go to D.C… people who go to different countries.”
Japanese restaurants are more ubiquitous in Fayetteville than Indian restaurants, so Freeman says that she must offer customers extremely competitive prices in order to compete with bigger Japanese restaurants. Though she believes the thing that most attracts repeat customers will always be the atmosphere and service.
“Customers love the food of course. Our Spicy Tuna, Futo Maki and rolls are all very popular, but of course, we enjoy what we are doing and it shows. It is very healthy food. People see that we are happy and stress free. It is more of a family restaurant. You want to make money, but you want to enjoy it. Everyone wants to make money but if you don’t enjoy it, then there is no point. This is a very happy place. No one is rushed. That’s why people come back.”
The loyalty of Bombay Bistro’s regulars was demonstrated like never before after the restaurant was robbed a few weeks ago. According to Kumar, the robbers broke their door while the place was closed, then proceeded to empty out their cash-register and fridge, spoiling their entire food supply. After posting about the incident on Facebook however, Kumar says that they were called by 18 different regular customers, who offered to come help clean up and left extra large tips, sometimes without even eating.
“We have been so embraced by this community. One customer came in with flowers for my wife. We were back up and running by Monday. The money, we are sure, the insurance will handle it, but the fact that people were wanting to help us clean up, it was very appreciated,” Kumar said. “The main thing was people coming in and people who came once just to see if we were alright. All of our regular customers came by, new customers came and said they are sorry about what happened. We have had such support. I am born in India, but really, I feel now that this is my country… and my community.”