On the surface, Tikkaway fits snugly under the “fast-casual” umbrella. The experience is built around the assembly line; every customer is given full reign over the composition of his or her meal and is serviced at every step along the way. The process begins with a choice between a roti wrap, rice bowl, or salad bowl. Then, there is a choice of protein or vegetables: chicken, lamb, panir, potato, chickpeas, or mixed vegetables. The final choice of toppings includes raw vegetables, cold chutneys, and of course, a curry: masala, khorma, madras, vindaloo, or Tikkaway vegan. Customers, then, are given the power and responsibility to mix-and-match ingredients for their meal; the picky college student, suddenly, is endowed with a tantalizing sense of culinary prowess. It’s a successful formula; Tikkaway only opened in the end of August, but it already holds 5 stars on Yelp and has become a favorite lunch-break destination for locals.
It isn’t just this emphasis on customizing flavor profiles that makes fast-casual dining an ideal business for a college town. The limited-service format is efficient and clean. Prices are low, ranging from $6-$12. Students and other busy clients can feel free to dine well and dash. On top of respecting their customers’ time and budgets, these restaurants reflect contemporary values by sporting environmentally- and health-conscious menu options that show a genuine concern for dietary restrictions and allergies and meet a growing demand for organic and locally sourced ingredients. Furthermore, fast-casual options such as Chipotle and now Tikkaway serve ethnic cuisines that pique the palate in contrast with what can often be bland offerings from your dining hall or typical burger place while keeping options comfortably familiar and simple.
Yet in spite of its tiled floors and open-kitchen, Tikkaway is no chain. Rather, it is the latest of jaunty restaurateur Gopinath Nair’s ventures. Nair was the owner of Coromandel, a highly acclaimed chain of Indian fine dining restaurants in South Norwalk. One day, he asked himself if the Mexican burrito and the Chinese orange chicken had made it to the mainstream, why hadn’t any element Indian cuisine? His answer: Tikkaway.
Tikkaway is supposed to be merely a gateway to a greater expanse of more complex and dynamic Indian cuisine. This means that some authenticity is lost along the way: three of the five sauces have no cream, and one is vegan. The results, however, are impressive; too often, diners at more traditional Indian restaurants regret the buttery paratha, the creamy chicken tikka masala, and the carb-in-carb samosas. Tikkaway, very surprisingly, keeps you light on your feet. The curries are lightened but remain the stars of the establishment, perhaps in part due to Nair’s background in Indian fine dining; they boast a carefully balanced spice blend and are an absolute, full-bodied delight. Rather than sacrifices, then, these changes can be seen as Nair’s innovations on Indian 101 (as Nair refers to more traditional Indian dining). These innovations are grounded by a solid foundation of well-executed basics: the basmati rice is subtly flavored with saffron, the vegetables are cooked to caramelization in gentle spice, and chutneys are balanced.
In the past, New Haven’s fast-casual restaurants may have not had the smoothest openings, but they at least had corporate backing. At Chipotle, burritos were cold, and Tabasco bottles were used as salt-shakers. Similarly, service at Panera Bread was slow, and pastas were overcooked. But supported by strong corporate infrastructures, these New Haven branches became as good as any other within three months.
In contrast, Nair doesn’t have the economic and marketing backup from such industry powerhouses. For him, the restaurant business demands not only a fervent dedication to his craft, but also a keen sense of hospitality. As a consequence, Nair makes a commendable effort to be the most dynamic, amiable restaurateur in New Haven: he works the line himself putting together rice bowls all day so that he has a chance to interact with customers himself. And it works: regulars drive from Norwalk every Tuesday to see him. A father even swung by to visit and show off his child’s dimples.
Tikkaway may initially seem like just an “Indian Chipotle,” but it offers so much more than quick and delicious Indian fare; it is a testament to the entrepreneurship and audacity of a local restaurateur who not only learned from the restaurant industry, but managed to surpass his corporate competitors in quality and service at every step.