Oliver and Gita Bangera opened their restaurant Nirmal’s in Pioneer Square in December 2015, and Oliver explains that he “wasn’t sure at the start whether there would be a market for a fine dining-restaurant serving Indian food.” But people loved it, and the location became a popular and highly regarded lunch and dinner spot for downtown workers and the community. They earned accolades from food critics and the media and were serving, on average, 240 customers each day with the support of their excellent team led by star chef Ashish Bagul.
By January and February of 2020, they had nearly doubled their sales relative to a year earlier, and were weeks away from launching their expansion to three more locations with Executive Chef Ashish Bagul in full swing designing and developing the menu concepts.
They had already signed leases on the new locations—including a commercial kitchen in Factoria and the former California Pizza Kitchen in Bellevue near the Microsoft campus – and expected to employ a total of 200 people. “We thought we were unstoppable,” Oliver said.
Unexpected shift in direction
Their plans to open the new locations in March came to an abrupt halt with the COVID-19 pandemic. Not only has Nirmal’s suffered serious financial damage, but, Oliver says, “our plans have taken a massive hit. Now we’re just sitting here waiting.”
He explains that as they anticipated the expansion, they created spreadsheets modeling every potential business scenario they could think of, such as experiencing a 15-25 percent loss in business due to economic recession or unforeseen circumstances. “We ran all the numbers, to make sure” future revenue models and projections were viable. However, he says wryly, “you don’t ever expect it to be zero. There’s no way to prepare for the current situation created by COVID-19.” He isn’t sure they will be able to open the new locations by August as originally planned but he intends to keep pushing forward.
For now, Oliver is focused on taking care of their 22 employees and finding ways to help the community during this time of crisis. While they’ve temporarily suspended lunch service, they are doing 25-30 takeout dinners a day. Nirmal’s is open for curbside pick-up daily from 5:30-9:30, and people can order by calling the restaurant (206) 683-9701 or ordering through DoorDash, Uber Eats, or Postmates.
In the last two weeks, they’ve also started delivering food to sustain hospital employees who are working long hours in partnership with the nonprofit, Off Their Plate.
Commitment to the team
No matter what happens, Oliver says, they are maintaining core principles and priorities. First and foremost, they’re totally dedicated to caring for the employees, who are “family.” He says he’ll continue “doing what I can. You have to do that. You can never lose your values. I’m only as good as my team.” He’s planning to stay open as long as possible, share all income, and provide whatever wages he can, along with health insurance for everyone, which is a key commitment.
He’s proud of the fact that from the day they launched their business – long before they became profitable and years before he was paying himself a salary – they were providing health benefits for the team. This must continue, he says, because “lives are at stake.” He explains, “in the middle of a pandemic, there’s no way I can stop. I have to keep paying [health care] premiums.” Whereas he usually pays 80 percent and the employees pay the balance, now, he reports, “I am paying 100 percent. They are victims of this situation due to no fault of their own.”
Challenges for our immigrant neighbors
Oliver immigrated to the United States from India over 30 years ago. Like most restaurant owners he knows, a high percentage of his staff also are immigrants. He estimates that in restaurant work around the country, 60-70 percent of workers were born outside of the United States. The COVID-19 crisis has created unique dilemmas for those in varying stages of the immigration and naturalization process, which Oliver says, “is something people just don’t talk about” publicly.
Those who have work permits and have paid into unemployment are being told by their immigration lawyers not to apply for the unemployment benefits they are legally entitled to because “it will go against you when your immigration case comes up.” Several of his employees are in this situation.
[NOTE: According to the Seattle Office of Immigrant and Refugee Affairs (OIRA), as an earned benefit, Unemployment Insurance is not a benefit that U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services considers when determining green card eligibility under the March 2020 public charge rule. You can learn more at OIRA’s public charge page here.]
Oliver worries that across the country, people are “slipping through the cracks. They have no voice, and there is no discussion in social media of these people who – through no fault of their own – are in an absolutely desperate situation. It’s not just one or two. It’s many.” These are the kind of employees, the “most vulnerable,” that Oliver is committed to helping. He says simply, “I need enough revenue and cash to take care of them.” He’s continued to explore all options and opportunities, including applying for every available state and federal loan.
Finding a path forward
Oliver was encouraged last week when Nirmal’s was approached to start providing nutritious meals for hospital workers in the King County area through a program called Off Their Plate. This grassroots organization helps connect restaurants and health care workers on the front lines of the COVID-19 response. A Nirmal’s customer who is the Seattle coordinator for Off Their Plate contacted Oliver, and he jumped at the opportunity to contribute.
Last week, Nirmal’s served 150 meals to the hospitals and they plan to serve 200 more this week. They are serving “proper meals,” Oliver says, that are “protein rich, healthy, and mild – the kind of food you’d eat after fasting.” Served in compostable containers, the hospital staff get a starter, a main course, and a dessert at no cost to them. Off Their Plate helps offset some of the cost through the generous donors who support the participating local restaurants. To help support this effort, donate here.
Oliver explains that in India when there’s a war, natural disaster, or some other kind of community crisis, people get together and cook for the soldiers or whomever is affected by the events. He says, “every school kid who grows up in India” is familiar with this social norm and “knows this is what you do.” He asserts, “this pandemic is akin to that.” Oliver was profoundly touched when each of his employees volunteered to work without pay to help prepare and deliver the large hospital orders. It was inspiring, he says, that even as they were going through difficult times themselves, “everyone on the team said, ‘let’s do this!’”
Sources of hope
Reflecting on his team’s attitude, Oliver notes, “it’s one thing to be generous when you have a lot, but another when you are struggling yourself. Our Nirmal’s team members don’t know how long [the pandemic] will go on and yet each one offered to do that cooking for free. These kids are going through very tough times but can think beyond their own misery and think about our community.” Oliver believes there’s a “real silver lining” in all this. “It’s brought out the best in our team, and I’ve learned a lot as it’s gone on.”
He particularly compliments his chef, Ashish Bagul, for keeping in touch with everyone and helping keep their spirits up. When Oliver questioned whether it was feasible to start work at 5 a.m. in order to meet one hospital’s requested delivery time, the chef simply said, “we’ve agreed to support this, so we will do it.”
For the time being, Oliver is drawing from personal savings to help pay for daily supplies, which he picks up personally from Costco and Restaurant Depot. He’s also helping to pay rent and buy groceries, medicine, and other essentials for some of his staff. He explains, “You have to make a decision: ‘yes, we’ll take a beating. Let’s take a beating together. Let’s stand by our team, our family, and let’s go through this together.’” He hopes they’ll all come out the other side, but regardless, he says, “it feels good to know you’re not alone, you have others with you. There’s comfort in that. We will see it through together.”