Lancaster woman's catering firm helps refugees
Her own family's experience and the drive to make a difference led India native Srirupa Dasgupta to start an ethnic-food business in Lancaster.
"I knew nothing about the food industry," she said.
Yet in the past year, Dasgupta's urge to help local refugee and immigrant families blossomed into a catering and pre-made meals business. All of her current employees are refugees, she said.
Her family's roots are in the region of what had been eastern India, then East Pakistan and finally Bangladesh. After borders were redrawn in the late 1940s, her family shifted along with the Hindu and Sikh population into India, settling in the city of Calcutta — now known as Kolkata — where both of her grandmothers helped refugees settle, she said.
After moving to the U.S. in 1984, Dasgupta said, she attended Smith College in Massachusetts and worked for about 15 years in the software industry. She also worked as an executive coach. Her family traveled around the country for a few years, then came to Lancaster in 2007.
"Once we were settled here, I could decide what I wanted to do professionally," Dasgupta said.
Several events converged to inspire the idea of a catering business employing local refugees, she said.
First, in 2008 she attended a lecture by Muhammad Yunus, founder of micro-financing Grameen Bank and a native of Bangladesh. At the event, sponsored by the Lancaster Chamber of Commerce & Industry, Yunus talked about for-profit businesses with clear social vision that function as low- or no-profit entities, she said. She was so intrigued she determined to read Yunus' book.
But it wasn't until two years later that she got around to reading the book, "Creating a World Without Poverty: Social Business and the Future of Capitalism."
"I thought, 'Wow, there must be something I can do with this,' " Dasgupta said.
She talked to her executive coach, who asked, "What wouldn't be done if you didn't do it?"
While bringing her children to school at Wharton Elementary each weekday, Dasgupta said, she began to notice people who looked Indian in the area.
"I found out there are about 500 Nepali refugees in the area. I began asking myself, 'What do they do for work? How do they find jobs?' " she said.
She began to formulate an idea of creating a business for refugee women where they could use skills they already had and wouldn't need to learn a new language to do the work, Dasgupta said.
She had always wanted to have a restaurant, she said. In her model, she would provide the administrative infrastructure, but others would do the cooking from their own cultural regions of the world, she said.
"Sri came to us when she was first thinking about the idea," said Marshall Snively, vice president of the James Street Improvement District in Lancaster. "We thought it was fantastic to introduce a new concept in cuisine to Lancaster and achieve that while doing so much good for our local immigrant population," he said.
The organization helped Dasgupta locate a kitchen for the business at the East Side Community Kitchen, a shared-use facility on North Plum Street in Lancaster, he said.
"She had seen a common hour presentation at the institute on what students at Franklin & Marshall had been doing for local refugees," director Susan Dicklitch said.
She told Dasgupta her plan was a great idea and there was a need for it. She said it would give refugee women something dignified to do, Dicklitch said.
The institute connected Dasgupta with refugee-settling organizations in Lancaster, including Indiana-based Church World Service.
Dasgupta's vision, business experience and plan to let refugee women use their cooking as a job outlet is a good combination of interests, said Barbara Witmer, a matching grant coordinator for the organization.
Dasgupta began her bootstrap operation in January, with her first big catering event in March. She named the business Upohar Ethnic Cuisines; Upohar means "gift" in Bengali. Iraqi and Nepalese menus are available, though the menu may change as the business grows or employees change, she said.
She had to learn all of the regulations for the restaurant industry, and was helped by Leah Margerum, owner of the community kitchen, Dasgupta said. Margerum also taught her how to put a quote together for catering and some of the ropes of running a business in the food industry, Dasgupta said.
Early on, many of the people she had shared her idea with helped to spread the word about the catering service, she said.
For a short time, the business provided a "dinner at your doorstep" service, where hot meals were delivered take-out style to families or businesses. But having set hours at the community kitchen didn't work out, she said.
In the fall, Upohar began selling pre-made dishes made fresh daily at Expressly Local market on King Street in Lancaster. Customers can buy an entire meal or just the parts they like in individual containers, she said.
She now employs four women, catering small events and one or two large events each month, Dasgupta said.
In the future, she'd like the business to cater at least one large event each week and continue to grow, she said. She might hire some sous chefs to work under the other cooks if business increases enough, she said.
Being a for-profit was a decision she made to focus the clarity of her business, she said.
Some decisions, such as whether or not to pay minimum wage and cut labor costs to make a profit, are different for her even though Upohar is for-profit, she said.
"The clear social mission drives decisions I make," Dasgupta said.