Northwest Young Entrepreneur
Rama Agarwal - Thunder Bay
Rama Agarwal has a head for numbers.
It was apparent from the start. As a precocious nine-year-old, she helped out in the family business, doing the payroll at her parents’ grocery store in Thunder Bay. But life, unlike numbers, doesn’t always follow a predictable path.
A commerce degree, a stint at Revenue Canada, several other jobs and travels later, and she’s a successful restauranteur, the owner of an Indian/Thai restaurant, called Masala Grille, in Thunder Bay.
Agarwal, winner of the 2008 Influential Women of Northern Ontario Young Entrepreneur Award, owns the only authentic East Indian restaurant between Winnipeg and Thunder Bay.
And the word “authentic” isn’t used lightly.
The cuisine is prepared by two, soon to be three, Indian chefs, who have worked at some of the top hotels in India.
The interior of the restaurant displays an authentic East Indian atmosphere that is second to none.
As one nominator put it, “As you open the front door, you are surrounded and dazzled by a delightful array of traditional East Indian decor, unlike anything else in the City of Thunder Bay.”
The traditional decor has brought a lot of compliments, said Agarwal.
“A lot of people say, ‘oh my God your place is so gorgeous, where can I get this.’”
Much of it comes from villagers in India who, in order to sustain themselves, make quilts and bedspreads and tapestries.
“It just brings something new and unique to Thunder Bay and promotes India at the same time.”
Well-travelled would be an accurate description of Agarwal. In high school, she went on a rotary exchange program to Japan for a year.
Coming home, she set her sights on the University of British Columbia where she graduated in 1997 with a bachelor of commerce degree.
Out of university, she applied for and received a job at Revenue Canada.
But soon, the need for more international experiences appeared. Through the International Traineeship Exchange program, she took part in a 10-month internship at a bank in Istanbul, Turkey.
Coming back to Canada, she settled in Toronto and worked at Alcatel Canada, as a project cost accountant then later with Xtra Cash, a company based in Thunder Bay, that led to her managing two new locations in Winnipeg.
Then, in February 2006, tragedy hit. Her only brother died suddenly of a brain hemorrhage. She made the decision to come back to Thunder Bay to be close to her family.
“I definitely needed to stay at home to support my mom going through the stuff she had to deal with,” she said.
This was the turning point in her career.
Looking for a new career, her sister and her sister’s friend approached her about opening a restaurant.
With the variety of Chinese and Japanese restaurants in the area, Agarwal believed Thunder Bay was ready for more of an international cuisine.
With the help of family and friends, she opened Masala Grille.
Opening up an authentic East Indian restaurant in the heart of northern Ontario had some challenges. She was faced with finding a chef who was familiar with Indian cuisine, not an easy task in the North.
Indian cooking requires a complex mix of several spices, said Agarwal. “You sort of have to grow up with it.”
Initially, she received some help from a family friend. He was able to cook and train kitchen staff until more permanent help could be arranged.
Agarwal recruited chefs directly from India with the first arriving in January 2007, the second in March 2008 and the third is expected in May.
Once Masala Grille’s kitchen is fully staffed, Agarwal will look at implementing strategies to supplement the restaurant’s upcoming slow summer season.
“We are looking to increase our customer base,” she said.
Once she receives the third chef, she will be looking at holding cooking classes to teach Thunder Bay foodies about traditional Indian cooking.
They will also be looking at doing some catering, once they have their full complement of chefs.
But, right now, Agarwal is focusing on bringing in more full-time people to help out, so she can find more time for herself.
“I’ve spent a lot of time concentrating on work, so it’s just a matter of getting that balance in my life.”
As for future plans, she has nothing specific, right now.
“From the life I’ve led so far, it’s really hard for me to plan anything cause you never know what you are going to get yourself into.”