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Mahan in Alhambra: Dining Through a Pandemic

  • Mahan Indian Restaurant on Main Street is now open for modified in-person dining. Photo by Nikhil Misra-Bhambri.

  • Mahan Indian Restaurant only seats patrons at tables with signs to maintain social distancing rules. Photo by Nikhil Misra-Bhambri.

  • Owner of Mahan Indian Restaurant, Anil Sharma. Photo by Nikhil Misra-Bhambri.

Location

Alhambra , CA

In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, Mahan Indian Restaurant in Alhambra donated approximately 300 boxed lunches to local hospitals for the doctors, nurses and other staff members. Each box had a sticker “Vasudev Kutumbakam.” Translated, it means, “The world is one family.”

This is the belief system that drives the owner of Mahan, Anil Sharma. He wants to give the message to customers and residents of Alhambra that “we are all one.” If someone needs food and does not have the money to pay, Sharma’s response during the crisis has been to give the food at no cost. Sharma commented, “we love giving the food. We are in the community, we should make sure we are all helping each other.” 

Before the quarantine started, Mahan was mostly dependent on repeat customers, encompassing a broad range of ethnicities who dined at the restaurant on weekends. Takeout was a relatively small portion of Mahan’s business. Some of the most popular dishes included chicken tikka masala, lamb korma, rogan jhosh, mango chicken tikka, palak paneer, aaloo gobi, and Gobi Manchurian. These are all rich, varied and delicious specialties from the Mughal cuisine of North India. 

During the quarantine, Mahan’s business dropped by more than 40%. According to Sharma, “we make the minimum amount. We are just surviving.” Like many restaurants, they depended solely on takeout business through apps such as Grubhub and Postmates.

While take out is more expensive, the delivery apps take much of the profits. On the Uber app, Mahan gives a 10% discount to attract customers, which has helped increase business a bit. Sharma continued, “customers sitting at home want good Indian food which is expensive. 10% makes it cheaper.” While business has declined and delivery expenses have risen, Mahan has had to incur additional costs to maintain cleanliness and safety. Mahan has put plexiglass at the front of the door, separating the customers and delivery staff from all the employees. In addition, Mahan ensures that all workers wear masks and gloves in the kitchen, and that glass and windows are sanitized every thirty minutes. 

Mahan opened its doors in 2001 on Main and Garfield in Alhambra and moved to its current location at 110 West Main Street about ten years ago. Anil Sharma took over the restaurant from his friend in 2014 and continues to serve authentic Indian food to the San Gabriel Valley community. Unlike many other restaurants, he periodically reinvents the Mahan menu. Sharma comments, “people need to see different things in the menu.” Some of the new dishes Sharma has introduced have included aaloo tikki chat, samosa chat, haleem, nihari, and mango chicken tikka. While some of these dishes are fairly common, very few Indian restaurants serve Haleem and Nihari, which are specific to Hyderabad in India and parts of Pakistan.

Starting Memorial Day, Mahan decided to open seven days a week rather than six in order to try to increase their revenue. Consistent with their philosophy, Mahan has not reduced the work hours of its employees. While some employees are reluctant to come to work for fear of COVID-19 infection, Sharma wants to implement safe working conditions so that the employees feel confident about working.

Sharma has done his best to use government support and also reduce his expenses wherever possible. Mahan was able to get the PPP (Paycheck Protection Program loan) from the U.S. Small Business Administration and it helped him cover his fixed expenses such as rent and salaries. Mahan’s landlord was also cooperative and reduced their rent. 

Fortunately, the slowdown in India due to the pandemic has not impacted Mahan thus far, and the restaurant is able to purchase the necessary spices from the market. However, Mahan struggles to purchase the desired quantity of fresh produce and meats in the U.S. because of the sharp shortage of meat, milk products and vegetables. 

“You need to work harder to get what you need at the right time. When you went to wholesale stores before the pandemic, all the aisles were always fully stocked. Nowadays, if you go at a bad time, nothing is available and you have to return when the wholesalers receive another delivery and hope you get there before everything is sold out,” Sharma said.

Now with the lifting of restrictions, Sharma is working to accommodate this shift in norms in accordance with all health department guidelines. Eager customers craving their flavorful Indian meal have been contacting the restaurant asking when they will reopen for lunch and dinner.   

“Safety is very important, money can come later,” Sharma said. “You have to follow the guidelines when you run the business. We are just going with it.” Ensuring that customers and employees are safe and happy will remain his top priority.

While lunch buffets were a main source of income prior to the epidemic, at this point, there will be no buffet to avoid the touching of food. Earlier, Mahan could accommodate more than 65 customers, but now they will only allow 60% percent occupancy, including both staff and customers. Depending on how much space there is after distancing tables, they may have to allow an even lower occupancy. 

Through this entire period, Sharma and Mahan continue to stay philosophical and continue to innovate. Recently, Mahan’s Monrovia location started selling a $10 lunchbox. This deal attracted a large following on Instagram, and Sharma is considering whether to implement this offer at the Alhambra restaurant. Even when the quarantine is completely lifted, Sharma believes that many people will continue to face economic pressures and many after effects from COVID-19 will linger for a long time. In the interview, Sharma is quiet for a moment. Softly, he concludes with a quote from the Ramayana, “Hoi Soi Ram Rachi Rakha,” “Whatever Lord Rama thinks is better for us, it will happen.” 

 

Nikhil Misra-Bhambri is a resident of Altadena, California. He is the son of Indian immigrants, and his father is a professor at USC in the business school, while his mother is a lawyer. Nikhil recently graduated from USC with a bachelors in history. Currently, he is working towards his career as a freelance journalist. His hobbies include reading about history/politics/religion, travel, writing, learning languages, exercising, and eating at new restaurants. He previously wrote about Punjab Indian Market and Cuisine for Alhambra Source.

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