In the latest edition of SEEMA’s digital magazine, we profiled three South Asian women in the New York City food scene who have had to pivot their businesses dramatically since the COVID-19 pandemic began. In celebration of SEEMA’s idli meal kit launch with Desi Galli this week, we proudly present our magazine profile of its founder, PriaVanda Chouhan.
PriaVanda Chouhan, in her 30s, is also known as the “chaat lady.” She and her husband co-founded Desi Galli in 2012 to dish out fresh street food on the highly competitive “Little India” street, located on Lexington Avenue in Midtown Manhattan. Desi Galli became known for its kathi rolls and biryani, and later adapted to newer demands by including curries on a full dinner menu.
Desi Galli was launched right before Hurricane Sandy hit New York — “I thought I was going to go bankrupt” — but a year into that, the restaurant broke even, and even added a location in the East Village. “I learned how to cook when I moved to New York and apparently I’m really good at it, so here we are!” she said.
The coronavirus has the couple catering to a new wave of chefs and amateur cooking aficionados, the kinds of people who were suddenly looking for unique ingredients to make complex dishes at home. So Chouhan came up with “DG Pantry,” a service providing essential Indian groceries — rice, lentils, sabzis and even full-fledged meal kits — “because it’s not fair for folks right now to go out there and look for chili flakes or ginger garlic paste.”
“These are things that we carry fully in the restaurant to use in our database, so we have now packaged them for retail and have started this whole new line,” she told me, as I watched her peer over a pot of lamb biryani in her open-kitchen restaurant, now doubling as a grocery store.
“Right now, everything is delivery, pick-up and delivery. And if I turn around, you’ll see there’s no seating anymore,” she told me, wiping the sweat off her forehead. “We have now taken tables and racks and to make the DG Pantry, so people who do pick up are able to see what we have.”
As for the staff, they’re currently working with nine employees, down from the 16 staff members the restaurant had before the pandemic. “Furloughed?” I asked. “Nah, they just disappeared. They were too scared to come to work, but I am able to pay, let’s say, my waitress, and make her into a cashier,” she said. “So, whoever wanted to stay, I was able to give them jobs.” Previously, her husband would run the front-of-the-house cash counter and she would cook.
It took about two months for things to get back to normal, and just when things seemed to settle, a group of rioters during the BLM protests broke into her restaurant, stole cash, and vanished. While condemning the rioters, Chouhan dissociates them with the peaceful protestors fighting for racial justice and supports the Black Lives Matter movement wholeheartedly. “I grew up in north America—what happened to George Floyd is really terrible, and shouldn’t have happened. As South Asians, we need to come out more for Black lives,” she said.
So, how has she coped with all of it? “The business has been keeping me alive. I find the distraction has kept me going,” she said. “I know I’m not exactly making any money, but at least I’m not losing money. That’s how I see it.” The couple hasn’t ’dipped into the profits from last year yet, and are still waiting to pay rent and utilities, but are able to compensate their staff through all this. “That’s my number one goal, to pay my staff,” she said.
Desi Galli will also soon launch a line of DIY meal-box collaborations, to be shipped across the country, including one made exclusively with SEEMA. “We’re starting a Hello Fresh for Indian food,” Chouhan said. “Especially for people in middle America, for instance, where are they going to get dry red chili?” The DIY kit will come with a recipe, a how-to video, and all the ingredients needed to make a full meal. Watch this space for more news on that.
Check out this video which displays the best of the SEEMA Idli Kit