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How one restaurateur is surviving the pandemic

Using a combination of family recipes and those she has developed and refined over the years herself, Zareren Khan churned out meals for weddings, business lunches, and large corporate events before opening her eponymous restaurants in the Northern California cities of Mountain View and Palo Alto. Photos courtesy of Zareen Khan

SAN FRANCISCO—They were immigrant students from Karachi, Pakistan with a full graduate course load, eking out a living by working various jobs on campus. And then a baby girl came along. 

When Northeastern offered Zareen Khan a full-ride scholarship to pursue a master’s degree in economics, she accepted it without hesitation. Although she held undergraduate and graduate degrees from universities in Pakistan, the opportunity to attend Northeastern on an F-2 dependent visa while her husband pursued his own studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology was a no-brainer. But the arrival of a newborn baby meant the already cash-strapped couple had to get creative.

Zareen Khan, the owner of two popular restaurants in the San Francisco Bay Area, graduated from Northeastern with a master’s degree in economics. Photo courtesy of Zareen Khan

Khan asked a friend who was studying for her medical school exams if she’d watch her daughter while she attended classes or worked as a receptionist.

“When I’d come home, the only way I could pay her was through cooking,” says Khan. “So I would cook food for myself and give half of it to her as payment to watch my daughter. [Money] was so tight.”

Fast forward 25 years later and Khan is the owner of two popular eponymous restaurants in the South Bay region of the San Francisco Bay Area, with a third slated to open in August.

Shadows are cast now where lines once snaked around the corners of her restaurants serving Pakistani and Indian cuisine, but the COVID-19 pandemic hasn’t kept the crowds away altogether. To adapt to the new and unexpected challenges the crisis has imposed on her establishments—and by extension, the restaurant industry— Khan has found herself once again having to rely on her own ingenuity and creativity. 

Right away, she signed up for every delivery service available in the area. She offered curbside pick-up. She took to social media to notify patrons of the new safety precautions she’d put in place at her eateries. And, she sprinkled a handful of new items on to the menu, comfort foods such as haleem and kulfi

“COVID basically changed the whole fabric of the restaurant industry,” Khan says, adding that she was working upwards of 14 hours a day in March. “When the lockdown happened, I wasn’t sure how many staff I would be able to keep, because all of a sudden now you’re down to 30 percent of your sales. And, I really didn’t want to let go of my staff because you are as good as your team, and I have a fabulous team.”

She ordered touchless thermometers for her employees. Faced with a shortage of hand sanitizer and masks, she made her own for everyone who worked for her, delivery drivers included.

“COVID basically changed the whole fabric of the restaurant industry,” says Zareen Khan. “When the lockdown happened, I wasn’t sure how many staff I would be able to keep, because all of a sudden now you’re down to 30 percent of your sales. And, I really didn’t want to let go of my staff because you are as good as your team, and I have a fabulous team.” Photos by Khalida Sarwari/Northeastern University

“I even went and got a sewing machine, learned to sew,” she says. “I had never sewed before, but I started making masks for my employees and also to give away to Dashers [delivery drivers who work for the food delivery company DoorDash].”

One of the biggest changes to her business model, however, has been the reintroduction of frozen meals, such as shaami kabab and samosas. These are entrees that are cooked and then packed in plastic bags and frozen to be sold in addition to the regular menu items. It hasn’t been easy keeping them in stock, but they’ve kept Khan’s employees busy—and hired; cooking-averse customers are happy they can stash these items away and not have to worry about meals down the line.

Frozen meals are a component of Khan’s business that goes back to her pre-restaurant days—when she ran a booming catering business for about five years out of a kitchen in Santa Clara before opening her first restaurant in a 700-square-foot space in the shadow of Google’s Mountain View headquarters.

Using a combination of family recipes and those she has developed and refined over the years herself, Khan churned out meals for weddings, business lunches, and large corporate events in those five years. At the same time, she was selling and delivering frozen entrees. The orders poured in as word-of-mouth about her business spread. To keep up with demand, she bought the location of her first restaurant to use as a second kitchen, but seeing that it was already configured for a restaurant, she couldn’t resist the temptation of dipping her toe into the restaurant business.

“I had no idea how to run a restaurant,” she says. “All I’d heard was that it’s intense, so I didn’t want to get in there. But, there’s always this pull of having your own cafe or your own quaint little restaurant, so I fell in that trap, too. I said, ‘OK, let me try it as a restaurant and if it doesn’t work out, that’s OK; No problem. I will continue to cater.’” 

Within three months, lines started forming outside the restaurant every day around lunch time. Khan’s employee count grew from two to 44. Feeling the urgency to expand, in 2016 she found a second location in Palo Alto. Three offers had already been made on it, but Khan swooped in with the highest bid.

“I guess it was a good idea because this location has done well for me,” she says.

The location that absorbs most of Khan’s attention and time nowadays is a brand new one for which she just signed the lease this year. The restaurant was built according to Khan’s own specifications and she has big aspirations for it once it opens in August—though some of those plans may have to be paused until after the pandemic ends.

“With the new restaurant, I thought it could be not just a restaurant, but a community hangout place where we would promote artists, nonprofits, and musicians,” she says. “I notice a lot of immigrant parents come here to live with their son or daughter, and they feel very lonely here, and they have no place where they can feel connected to it. So I was thinking it would be nice to have a [monthly] gathering of our senior women to come and play a game or join an activity or just have chai and samosa.”

Running a restaurant of her own—much less three— isn’t where Khan thought she’d end up after graduating from Northeastern with a nearly 4.0 grade point average in economics. When her husband’s job at Intel brought the couple and their baby to the Bay Area in the mid-90s, she started a decade-plus-long career in technology, working as a product manager at various tech companies. Feeling increasingly unfulfilled, she finally quit the field in 2009. 

She didn’t know what would come next for her, but she knew she wanted to work for herself, and that she loved teaching, and feeding people. She applied for an instructor license and started demonstrating how to make Pakistani food from her home in Saratoga, using Facebook as a platform to spread the word about her classes. It soon became a family affair, with her husband, daughters, and son helping her to craft her menus. 

Around this time, she says, companies in the area began offering free food to their employees, and the demand for catering services grew.

“I had a catering kitchen so I’m like, ‘Yeah, sure, I’ll try it.’ My first catering experiment was for 150 people for a company called Clearwell that got acquired by Sun Microsystems. They were doing weekly lunches at that time after the acquisition, so I started providing food to them every week. They loved it. And that was the start of my catering career.”

Khan enjoyed the work too, despite making $5 an hour and hardly making any profit from the business. The people in her life didn’t quite understand her career move.

“Everybody was like, ‘What are you doing? You’ve studied so much. Why are you making these kabobs and doing these demonstrations?’ Even my own family would be like, ‘What are you thinking?’ But I kept at it.”

She regards Northeastern as a great starting point for her journey across the coast, and jump from one career to another.

“The kind of attention I got from the teachers at Northeastern, the amount of time they would spend after school, and how they encouraged me—I had never seen that kind of quality of teachers and I’m so fortunate that I was able to attend a university of that caliber.”

“And now,” she adds, “because of that opportunity that I got in ‘91, I am here and we have 44 households related to this and the many women who might look to me, and say, ‘If she did it, I could do it, too.’”

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