No stranger to accolades, Kasa’s simple, homestyle Indian food is garnering some much deserved attention from San Franciscans. Restaurant owners Tim Volkema, Suresh and Anamika Khanna first opened this corner-storefront Indian eatery in June 2008. What started out as a “little idea” that Suresh tossed around with his wife Anamika, when he was in grad school at Northwestern University’s Kellog School of Management, has now become a living, breathing business in full swing. I recently got a chance to chat with Tim about Kasa and how he went from a brand manager at Kraft Foods to a full-time restaurant owner.
How would you describe Kasa?
We like to think of ourselves as an “Indian taqueria,” serving Calcutta-style street food.
How did you come up with the name Kasa?
We originally asked our friends for suggestions, then we came up with a name all three of us really liked, but due to trademark issues, we had to scratch our original name. Then Anamika came across the name Kasa in a book about Sanskrit words. Kasa means “royal meal.” And while the dishes we serve aren’t high-cost, it’s definitely food fit for a king.
What inspired you to open a restaurant?
When Suresh and I were both in grad school at Kellog, Suresh talked about wanting to open up a restaurant someday. After we both graduated, I ended up getting a position with Kraft Foods as a brand manager. Suresh accepted a job offer working in technology for Google and he and Anamika moved out to San Francisco, CA. But after five years of doing the corporate thing, I wanted a change of pace. I eventualy gave Suresh a call to see if he was still interested in opening up a restaurant. My wife and I are both foodies, and I fell in love with Indian style cooking when I went to school in England.
I’ve held corporate jobs my entire life and I actually never worked in a restaurant until I opened up Kasa, but I’m quickly getting acclimated. Anamika, Suresh and I came in to building a restaurant with our own ideas and collectively created what is now Kasa.
What’s the hardest part about running a restaurant?
When we first got started, writing the business plan was the easy part because Suresh and I both went to business school. Everything else has been a challenge. From the day to day operations to the long hours, it’s a physical job. People shouldn’t open a restaurant unless they’re really passionate about what they’re doing.
I run the front of the house at Kasa and Anamika is the executive chef right now. While I love eating Indian food, Anamika is the creative mind behind all our recipes. These are recipes that she grew up with. They mostly come from the Northwest region of India in Punjabi.
There are so many restaurants in San Francisco, what sets Kasa apart from other eateries in the area?
Our restaurant is about menu simplicity. While we have good mix of meat and vegetarian dishes, we try to focus on eight core dishes and do them well. There are always six permanent entrees on the menu and we add two specials each day. Our dishes are served two ways — in a kati roll or a thali plate (a combination plate served with a roti, basmati rice, veggie salad, chutney and cooling raita). Kati are a street snack in India, and look like an Indian-style burrito.
All of our recipes are from Anamika and these are the homemade dishes she grew up eating. She prepares almost everything on the menu from scratch. So you won’t find low-grade meats or prepackaged spice mixes in any of our dishes.
We’ve started to build a reputation for our homestyle cooking. On the weekends we get a lot of Indian families looking for that familiar comfort food at our restaurant. As for the restaurant’s ambiance, our décor is more modern and industrial. You won’t find heavy drapery or bright bold colors when you walk in. We aren’t your typical sit-down restaurant. Similar to a taqueria, you come up and order your food, watch it get made, and then you sit down to eat.
What’s the most popular dish ordered at kasa?
Definitely the Chicken Tikka Masala. It’s a charbroiled and marinated free-range chicken in a creamy tomato sauce. We prepare ours slightly spicier and less creamier than other Indian restaurants.
So what does the future hold for the former MBA grad from Kellog?
Down the road, my partners and I are hoping to expand. But right now, I’m taking this new endeavor one day at time.
Kasa Indian Eatery: 4001 18th Street @Noe San Francisco, CA