Last year, when brothers Atin and Aankit Malholtra pivoted from careers in the corporate and banking worlds and took over the Indian restaurant Benares (45 Murray Street), they anticipated some challenges for their first go in the service industry. But they had no idea what was in store when COVID-19 forced kitchens across the city to close or operate in limited capacities.
“It’s been a monsoon,” Atin (photo, above left) told the Downtown Alliance. The pandemic proved to be a trial by fire for their business, especially given that so many locals cleared out of their Downtown neighborhood. “People were moving out, staying with their parents.” Benares still received a modicum of orders for its lamb vindaloo and eggplant curry, but deliveries slowed down as more and more New Yorkers left.
Then, something unexpected happened. The restaurant started receiving delivery orders from international numbers. “We got calls from people in India and Dubai who had us deliver food to their kids’ homes and dorms,” Atin said. “That had never happened before. They actually called back a few times after that — our food is authentic, and they like that.”
Atin attributes the restaurant’s “melting pot” of chefs from different regions of India — including Rajasthan and Kolkata, as well as the neighboring country Nepal — as one reason families identified Benares as a reliable source for home cooking. (Also that they don’t dabble in Indian-fusion cuisine.)
The brothers have gone out of their way to ensure the safety of their chefs by personally cabbing them to and from work — allowing them to bypass the risk of taking public transportation. Yes, even though their cooks live in Queens and the brothers live in New Jersey, it felt like a precautionary measure worth taking. “We get up early,” Atin said.
The front of the house also makes sure to exercise caution by sanitizing the space regularly and using proper PPE. Not only does this keep their workers safe, it demonstrates to the neighborhood that they are implementing every possible safeguard and take this virus seriously.
The Malholtra brothers are grateful that they’ve been able to keep business intact, but they miss mingling with their clientele in a crowded dining room. “I’m a people-person,” Atin said, “so it’s not as fun as it used to be. But now that we have outdoor dining, we’re seeing more people who want to come out and support us.”