Through fairness and progressive thinking, Chelsea’s upbringing tenderness Contemporary Indian cuisine sets a precedent for how tenacity and enthusiasm can achieve goals in the city where dreams are made: New York City.
Monica Saxena opened aRoqa in 2017 after an unusual career path that enabled her to gain outstanding experience, which was essential to the continuity of her current business. She moved to the United States from India nearly 35 years ago after completing her undergraduate degree, and after a year of law school before the university closed. She has held several jobs with tech startups, worked in the semiconductor industry and moved between New York, Los Angeles and London. When I noticed that the Chelsea neighborhood lacked a proper Indian restaurant to take a date with someone, I started making a plan to get ahead.
“I wanted to try different things, with Indian food, that hadn’t been done before. All I saw was one curry house after another and frankly it was awkward,” Saxena said. This was the impetus for the desire to open an Indian restaurant which was not a curry house.”
She and her initial operating partner explored a site for 3 months before they were satisfied and hired a Korean architect to completely redesign it. Saxena and her partner stopped seeing eye to eye when her partner wanted to take the restaurant into the catering industry, thinking it wouldn’t work as a traditional restaurant. “You invested in me even though I decided to take on the position of operator,” Saxena said. “In 2018, I took over management of the restaurant and spent 16 hours a day for about six months understanding how to operate in a restaurant.”
Harmonize this understanding with her background in the technology industry to create and implement tried-and-true management techniques of high standards and equality ahead. Saxena cross-trained its employees, teaching them how to work in all positions so that if problems arise in an individual department, any employee can lend a hand. This method of creating a “flat organization” has allowed the core value of Saxena’s teamwork to flourish in the times when it is most needed.
During Covid, this cross-training is more valuable than ever. It enabled the Al-Raqqa team to replace each other seamlessly without the need for additional training. Saxena did not take this for granted, and did her best to provide them with everything they needed to maintain their strength during a low stage in society. Saxena noted, “The moment I got the Paycheck Protection Program I put them all back and said, ‘This money is coming to you guys. Someone came and vaccinated them all in the first two investigations.” Besides hiring someone to come into the restaurant with the vaccine, Saxena paid some of her employees out of their pockets when there wasn’t enough income because she knew she had to back them up.
Covid helped Saxena build her confidence in Raqqa, realizing that surviving the pandemic means she can survive anything. A respectable sense of camaraderie, along with her deference to others is what Saxena credits with her success. Her sympathy to her workers, suppliers and guests makes comments come, and everyone in the Raqqa family is happy.
For the meal itself, presentation is always an important factor, as customers’ first experience with the food is what they can see. Saxena said her commitment to the kitchen is how she maintains her standards. These criteria allowed ARoqa to receive a Michelin award in 2021, a prestigious honor for any organization, but particularly impressive with the youthfulness of the work.
The name itself comes from the term ‘roka’, a traditional Indian event where families gather and celebrate the newlyweds’ engagement over a meal. The meals are inspired by the Mughal culture, and the ambiance is set to evoke that sense of celebration and festivity for the customers. “The team and the chefs are the ones who cook and serve the guests. These are the people who are the real tenderness, not Monica, Monica is a dreamer who wanted to set an example that Indian restaurants can operate in a dignified manner that treats employees well,” Saxena said. This dream came true from the passion and effort of Saxena, serving as an inspiration to all dreamers that anything is possible.
To learn more about Raqqa, visit their website.