A Restaurant That Serves Up A Side Of Social Goals

A Restaurant That Serves Up A Side Of Social Goals

7:23pm Jan 01, 2015
Srirupa Dasgupta opened Upohar, a restaurant and catering service, with a social mission. Her employees — primarily refugees — earn double the minimum wage.
Srirupa Dasgupta opened Upohar, a restaurant and catering service, with a social mission. Her employees — primarily refugees — earn double the minimum wage.
Jeff Brady / NPR
  • Srirupa Dasgupta opened Upohar, a restaurant and catering service, with a social mission. Her employees — primarily refugees — earn double the minimum wage.

    Srirupa Dasgupta opened Upohar, a restaurant and catering service, with a social mission. Her employees — primarily refugees — earn double the minimum wage.

    Jeff Brady / NPR

  • The lunch buffet at Upohar in Lancaster, Pa., includes a mix of cuisines from South Asia, Africa and the Middle East.

    The lunch buffet at Upohar in Lancaster, Pa., includes a mix of cuisines from South Asia, Africa and the Middle East.

    Jeff Brady / NPR

  • Rachel Bunkete fled the Democratic Republic of Congo  in 2008, leaving her husband and three children. She is now the lead chef at Upohar in Lancaster, Pa., a restaurant and catering service that hires primarily refugees.

    Rachel Bunkete fled the Democratic Republic of Congo in 2008, leaving her husband and three children. She is now the lead chef at Upohar in Lancaster, Pa., a restaurant and catering service that hires primarily refugees.

    Jeff Brady / NPR

This is part of a series of stories about starting over, profiling people who, by choice or circumstance, reinvented or transformed themselves.

When Srirupa Dasgupta came to the U.S. from India to attend college in the mid-1980s, she was determined to work in high-tech, not the restaurant industry. But today, she owns a small restaurant and catering service in Lancaster, Pa., and employs primarily refugees who might have trouble finding work elsewhere.

After college, Dasgupta worked her way up the corporate ladder — from software engineer to manager at a healthcare company. Just about the time the tech bubble burst in the late-1990s, she started getting burned out and was looking for something different.

"The starting-over point wasn't like a Big Bang thing. It was kind of a migration," says Dasgupta, while in the kitchen of her restaurant, Upohar — the Bengali word for "gift."

The lunch buffet at Upohar in Lancaster, Pa., includes a mix of cuisines from South Asia, Africa and the Middle East.

The lunch buffet at Upohar in Lancaster, Pa., includes a mix of cuisines from South Asia, Africa and the Middle East.

Jeff Brady/NPR

After leaving the high-tech world, she started a family and trained as an executive coach, sort of a consultant to business leaders. Then in 2008 she heard Nobel Peace Prize recipient Muhammad Yunus speak about for-profit businesses that also have a social objective.

"I kept thinking about this concept, and I was really intrigued. I just couldn't let it go. ... I was possessed," Dasgupta says.

Helping refugees interested her. She grew up hearing stories of her grandparents fleeing what is now Bangladesh in 1947 — and Lancaster has an active refugee community.

In 2010, Dasgupta opened Upohar as a catering business with a social mission of hiring refugees and others, such as homeless people, who have difficulty finding work. Last April she expanded and opened a restaurant. Employees are paid double the minimum wage, which is $7.25 an hour in Pennsylvania.

Tulsha Chauwan is a chef at the restaurant. Her family fled Bhutan in South Asia and then spent years in a refugee camp in Nepal before the U.S. granted permission to come here. Her favorite dish to make is eggplant tarkari, a dish that's special to her because her mother taught her to make it.

Rachel Bunkete fled the Democratic Republic of Congo  in 2008, leaving her husband and three children. She is now the lead chef at Upohar in Lancaster, Pa., a restaurant and catering service that hires primarily refugees.

Rachel Bunkete fled the Democratic Republic of Congo in 2008, leaving her husband and three children. She is now the lead chef at Upohar in Lancaster, Pa., a restaurant and catering service that hires primarily refugees.

Jeff Brady/NPR

Dasgupta says Chauwan was very shy at first, but now she's bringing in new recipes regularly, hoping her boss will put them on the menu.

Rachel Bunkete is lead chef at Upohar and has her own favorite dish to cook: peanut stew. She learned how to make it growing up in the Democratic Republic of Congo in Central Africa.

In 2008 she fled the political, ethnic and religious conflicts there. Bunkete had to leave behind her husband and three children. Eventually she got permission to come to the U.S. Here she was able to make contact with her family again.

"They are not here for now. I am alone," says Bunkete, whose family is in Nigeria and is expected to join her within a few months. She's saving money from her job to make that happen.

Upohar has only three regular employees and has yet to turn a profit. Dasgupta hopes business will pick up in the New Year, and she says, for her, starting over has meant starting small. But, she says, that's OK.

"I'm just going to focus on making a difference right here," Dasgupta says, "and if it grows beyond that, that's wonderful. But if it doesn't, then it will have made an impact [on] my neighbors."

Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

Here's a twist now on the idea of the dreaded New Year's resolution. We're telling the stories of people who are starting over, by choice or circumstance. In this installment, NPR's Jeff Brady has a story from Lancaster, Pennsylvania. It's about a woman from India who started out as a software engineer, but now helps refugees.

JEFF BRADY, BYLINE: When Srirupa Dasgupta came to the U.S. for college in the mid-1980s, she was determined to work in high-tech, not the restaurant industry. But today, she owns a small restaurant and catering service.

SRIRUPA DASGUPTA: The starting over point - well, it wasn't like a Big Bang thing. It was kind of a migration.

BRADY: Dasgupta worked her way from software engineer to manager at a health care company. But then she got burned out and started to look for something different. She liked the idea of helping refugees because she grew up in India with stories of her grandparents fleeing what is now Bangladesh in 1947. And Lancaster has an active refugee community that includes people like Tulsha Chauwan.

She chops vegetables in the kitchen at Dasgupta's restaurant. Chauwan says she spent years in a refugee camp in Nepal, after her family fled Bhutan in South Asia. Her family was granted permission to come to the United States, where she's now making her favorite dish - eggplant tarkari.

TULSHA CHAUWAN: (Unintelligible) What you do - you take eggplant, you make powder and - chili powder - and onion.

BRADY: Where did you get the recipe?

CHAUWAN: My mom makes this one, and my mom teach me. And I learned how to cook here.

BRADY: So it's special to you?

CHAUWAN: Yes.

BRADY: Dasgupta says Chauwan was very shy when she started working here, but now she brings new recipes all the time, hoping her boss will put them on the menu. Dasgupta's restaurant is called Upohar. She says that's the Bengali word for gift. Her idea for the restaurant and catering service came after she heard a speech about businesses that also have a social objective.

DASGUPTA: And I kept thinking about this concept. And I was, like, really intrigued. I just couldn't let it go. Like, what can I do with it? I need to do something with it. I was possessed. (Laughter).

BRADY: Over at the stove, another employee, Rachel Bunkete, has her own favorite dish to cook - peanut stew. She learned to make it in her home country - the Democratic Republic of Congo in Central Africa. In 2008, she fled the political, ethnic and religious conflicts there. Bunkete had to leave behind her husband and three children. Eventually, she got permission to come to the U.S., and she was able to make contact with her family again.

RACHEL BUNKETE: They are not here for now. I'm alone.

BRADY: That must be hard.

BUNKETE: Yeah, it's too hard for me to live alone.

BRADY: And do you know where they are?

BUNKETE: Yes. They are in Nigeria now.

BRADY: Within the next few months, she hopes her family will join her in Lancaster. She's saving money to make that happen. Bunkete is one of only three regular employees at Upohar. Owner Srirupa Dasgupta says for her, starting over has meant starting small.

DASGUPTA: I'm just focusing on my little corner of the world and my neighborhood - literally to say, you know, I'm just going to focus on making a difference right here. And if it grows beyond that, that's wonderful. But if it doesn't, then it will have made an impact to my neighbors.

BRADY: If her version of starting over succeeds, the restaurant needs to turn a profit; it's not yet. But out in the dining room, reviews from customer Nicki Martin are good.

NICKI MARTIN: The food is healthy. It's not mass-produced. It's cooked with love.

BRADY: A good reporter needs to check this out firsthand. I chose the $10 lunch buffet.

Oh, my gosh. That cauliflower dish is amazing. I'm going to finish my lunch. We're at Upohar restaurant in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. I'm Jeff Brady, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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