In the mood for pizza, momos, and maybe some tandoori chicken, too? Look no further than Kantipur Café outside of Cambridge’s Inman Square, where Rojal Shrestha, 29, sells a combination of Nepalese food (Shrestha came to the United States at 4) and slices. His dad, Radheshyam Shrestha, ran pizzerias in Michigan before moving the family to Massachusetts for more economic opportunity. This is the family’s first restaurant, and they opened in August — not the best timing. They didn’t plan to open in the midst of a pandemic, of course, but the family is hopeful that with a robust takeout business and a few indoor tables, they can persevere.
What’s it like to try to open a business during COVID-19? Could you have waited?
We opened a month ago. We’ve been wanting to open a restaurant forever now. We’ve had a location for over two years, and we finally had enough time to get a contractor to check out the electric wiring. But then the whole COVID thing happened, which caused us to be delayed even longer, for a few more months.
Then, literally two months ago, the electrician told us that everything was set, and the gas company came through and said everything was set, so we were comfortable enough to finally open. And then the COVID-19 thing wasn’t really going to deter us, because we already had a dream for years now. It was a rough patch to deal with, but we’re glad we’re open.
Why was this your dream?
Well, my dad’s been in the restaurant business forever. In Michigan, we had Dolly’s Pizza — and that’s another reason we sell pizzas and subs at this place. Dolly’s is a very Michigan-only pizzeria, but it was very popular. As a kid I used to go there, and my little cousins together, we’d sit in a tiny room and watch TV and eat pizzas. And I’d try to help cut pizzas whenever I could.
Why did you move to the Boston area?
We moved from Michigan to Massachusetts. I think it was right after the Ford Company situation was going on. Everybody was escaping the Midwest at the time, just to find better opportunities. And my dad chose Massachusetts because we already had friends here, and he literally bought a house in Somerville without [our family] knowing. … We didn’t know about it until my dad finalized the house.
So it was all last-minute, but we moved here just for a better opportunity financially, because I think my dad saw the crash of the Midwest before it really hit heavy.
What was he doing before running the restaurant?
He had been working at Whole Foods. My parents were both working minimum-wage jobs. They’ve been wanting to be their own boss forever, and when opportunity strikes, you just do it.
Talk to me about your food.
We serve a variety of dishes, but our most popular dishes are Nepali dishes, and you’d think pizza and stuff would sell the most.
Pizza and Nepalese food is an interesting combination.
Yeah! Well, the days with Dolly’s Pizza that we had in Michigan, that’s what I was really inspired by. This was our little backup just in case the Nepali thing didn’t work. Because in America, we don’t really see a lot of Nepali restaurants. I know growing up, even in Cambridge and Somerville, I’d go to Punjabi Dhaba for that. And just recently, Nepali restaurants and Indian restaurants started popping up.
But my parents always had that dream of making their own restaurant. The major reason we have pizzas and subs is to give other people more options when they’re not comfortable enough to buy something they don’t recognize.
Tell me what you love. What are your favorite dishes on the menu?
We have the chili momos, which is chili chicken and dumplings. The dumplings consist of scallions and vegetables and chicken. Then we steam them. My mom personally makes all the dumplings at the restaurant. And she literally spends hours making it every day, making every single one exactly the way that she made it before, at home. And it’s been our top product, really. People just love mom’s cooking. And she’s really proud of it, as she should be.
We try to do a thinner crust of pizza. We have the average pizza types like supreme, pepperoni, whatever. I think right now we provide a way better price, because we’ve been doing 15 percent off this whole time. I don’t know how to describe a pizza without making it sound like I’m trying to cheese you up, but the thing is for me, pizza’s pizza. I love pizza. And there’s bad pizza, there’s good pizza, and I’d like to say we’re somewhere right at the top. Not the top, tippy top, but somewhere in the middle top.
How has business been with COVID? How has it affected your plans?
There’s no real inside dining. People don’t really inside-dine. There’s a fear of you going to a restaurant, signing your name and your paper, having to sanitize pens. Every little detail counts for sure when it comes to COVID. I don’t know what to expect when it ends, but I only expect the numbers to get higher. Right now we are trying our hardest.
We’re slightly understaffed right now, but that’s why I put in 80 hours a week just to make sure everything’s fine, everybody’s blown away. But once COVID ends, hopefully, we’ll have enough business to hire more employees so I can have a day off.
We are taking every precaution for sure. We do takeout, and for inside dining, we only do two tables at once. So anytime there’s more than two people who try to get in, we tell them we can’t do it right now due to the limited space and whatever guidelines that Massachusetts provides for us. Again, we are new, and we’re not trying to destroy our reputation just to make an extra buck. That’s kind of ridiculous, but we’re playing by the rules, and hopefully this thing goes away soon.
What does the restaurant industry need right now? How can the industry be helped?
Well, that’s a really good question. I’ve tried to see what we could do for outside seating and outside dining and the guidelines for that. Again, I know that all the squares, like Inman Square and Central Square, they all have areas where the city provides for them an outside seating kind of thing, without charging them extra money. You know what I mean? Because it’s for the function of the city.
I was looking at the guidelines and I was like, “Hey, can we do that for our area?” Our cafe is at 119 Hampshire St., so it’s not in a square. It’s more like in a neighborhood. So outside seating is kind of out of the way for people who will walk in the crosswalks, and the sidewalk is the only place where we could have outside seating.
The thing is, it costs another $5,000. And for a restaurant that just opened up during this pandemic and the numbers aren’t even added up yet, it’s kind of a struggle doing that. So we are a little limited to just inside seating of two tables and takeout. I’m not complaining; by all means it’s still working great, but it would be great if the city would say something about the little businesses like us that aren’t in the middle of the square.
Are you going to keep working for your parents’ restaurant? Is this your dream, too?
Well, even working a whole lot as a kid and watching them, they worked like 80 hours. I remember as a kid, going home and doing laundry for the whole family or cooking dinner and stuff like that, because they had long hours. My dad’s a cancer survivor. … I’d like to see them not have to put in so much work and effort every single day. They’ll get some time to retire. Do I really want to be working as a restaurant manager my whole life? Probably not. But as for now, I’m happy with what I’m doing and helping out my family.
Kantipur Café, 119 Hampshire St., Cambridge, 617-714-3904, www.kantipurcafe.com
Kara Baskin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @kcbaskin.