Because the world is different these days, Preeti Waas believes it needs a different kind of restaurant.
She’s not calling it a restaurant, actually, it’s an emporium, an all-day space showcasing an ever-changing view into Indian cuisine.
Cheeni Indian Food Emporium will open this month in North Raleigh, a first of its kind food space combining a morning cafe, lunch and dinner spot, teaching kitchen and retail shop featuring high quality Indian spices.
“It’s full of so much, you never know what you’ll find,” Waas said. “I’m very fond of food halls, but this is not that. We’re not several concepts in one. We’re one concept that’s doing a lot. We’re multifaceted.”
The word emporium fit better than restaurant, Waas said, embracing the spectrum of food experiences she plans to pack into Cheeni. The new concept has moved into the former Caretta Coffee & Cafe in the Falls River Shopping at 1141 Falls River Ave. Waas was drawn to the location, she said, as a North Raleigh resident herself, one often struggling to find food she wants to eat.
“If I want good food, other than the American pub, I’m at a loss,” Waas said.
Waas first opened Cheeni as a coffee counter in the lobby of the Fayetteville Street YMCA in downtown Raleigh. It became a destination for chai and tremendous toasts and other baked goods, eventually expanding to the Alexander Family YMCA on Hillsborough Street.
But the pandemic’s impact on downtown Raleigh hit those cafes hard, initially closing the Fayetteville Street location, while the other remained open. Last month, Waas ended Cheeni’s run at the Alexander YMCA as she made the final preparations on the North Raleigh emporium.
Inspired by tiny restaurants in Spain and Europe and India, Waas imagined the new Cheeni to cater to moments big and small, mirroring the ebbs and flow of the day. Much of the menu will change weekly, offering a new reflection of seasonal dining through an Indian lens.
In the morning the menu will be coffee, chai and pastries, baked fresh to grab and go or to sit and hang out for a while.
For lunch, the tandoor oven will be fired up and the menu will include at least four different kinds of skewered kebabs, such as seasonal vegetables or marinated lamb, charred and draped over house-made naan, topped with pickled onions and aioli.
With Cheeni, Waas hopes to build on the fast casual trend of restaurant lunches.
“You have the ability to enjoy a fulfilled meal that’s not fast food,” Waas said. “You don’t have to be restricted to the drive-thru. The in between can work.”
Dinner will typically showcase another side of the tandoor and Cheeni, where a menu will include five different dishes. It could mean a whole fish slathered with a marinade of mint, cilantro, ginger, green chiles and lime juice and cooked until blistered. Or lamb vindaloo, a ubiquitous dish on Indian restaurants that Waas aims to serve a more authentic version of, playing up the Portugese influence, where lamb will be marinated in vinegar and chiles and warm spices like cinnamon and cooked off in the oven with an onion sauce.
Instead of a stayed menu, Waas hopes doing fewer dishes each week can add up to a deeper experience with each meal.
“I have what I would consider a tight menu, it’s not all over the place,” Waas said. “I don’t need to be everything to everybody. The idea of coming to Cheeni is as if you were coming to my home.”
‘Saved my life’
Waas has been baking since she was 9, she said, growing up in a family that valued food, including two aunts she called “phenomenal cooks.”
“Our family was kind of legendary in India, you knew if you were going to their house you were going to eat well,” Waas said. “You were kind of like a stuffed goose, eating until you can eat no more.”
But Waas said food also played a tense and fraught role within her family, that her father would become abusive if she didn’t have food prepared when he came home from work.
“I literally learned to cook to save my life,” Waas said. “Now I want to cook for the joy of it.”
She started her first restaurant in 2008 in Tulsa, Oklahoma, paying people $9 an hour and serving a staff meal before service. Waas said the modest pay increase, compared to many restaurants, plus the staff meal, was not what the workers were used to.
“I insisted that no one could start working until they had eaten,” Waas said. “Apparently it was unusual and trailblazing, but it just makes sense. If someone walks into my space, they can’t be served by someone who’s not fully focused and they can’t be that if they’re hungry.”
A new model
The new Cheeni will remain a counter-service concept, where there are no formal wait staff and meals are ordered and then brought out to diners.
“The restaurant model is kind of dead,” Waas said. “The model as we know it is and should be dead.”
If that model is broken, Waas hopes Cheeni can offer ways to heal those cracks.
Restaurants of all kinds have changed service models in the past couple of years, some as an answer to staffing shortages. Waas built Cheeni this way, she said, to create a more equitable pay structure in the restaurant, eliminating tipping and leading to higher wages for front and back of house workers. She said some of the changes kicked up during the pandemic have helped the hospitality industry live up to its name.
“That’s what hospitality is,” Waas said of wage changes. “Not what we’re used to here and not what we’ve encouraged in the U.S. It’s become glaringly obvious to people not in the industry that it’s been limping along because that’s what everyone else did. It became clear how poorly restaurant workers are paid.”
Beyond the daily menus, Waas plans to create a subscription service within Cheeni, a kind of dinner adventure series for foodies. Named the Spice Rack Passport, the subscription will have three different tiers, the Saffron Society, the Cardamom Club and the Ginger Guild, each with access to special classes, dinners, pop ups and themed events, which could include cooking demonstrations from local or visiting chefs.
Waas said the idea and name of the passport builds on a desire she saw born out of the pandemic, to still tap into international cuisines and culture without the ability to travel.
“I learned what people are really looking for is authenticity,” Waas said.
This story was originally published April 6, 2022 12:09 PM.