History of Masala Art

 

“When the history of Boston dining is written, Vinod and Shikha Kapoor will be prominently mentioned. The couple was instrumental in the popularization of Indian food in the Hub.”
Mat Schaffer, Boston Herald, March 26, 2010 

 

The Kapoor family is the pioneer of Indian Food in Boston. Over the past 36 years, they introduced Boston palates to India’s favorites (Butter Chicken, Palak Paneer, Vindaloos). However, Chef Shikha Kapoor’s knowledge and mastery of Indian cuisine goes much beyond that. Paired with Vinod’s visionary intellect and passion for catering to people’s needs, the couple has built themselves a renowned business and legendary reputation as owners of the best Indian restaurant eateries and catering services that the Boston area has seen.

Let’s take it back to the early 1980’s. Boston area Indian restaurants were few and far to come by with less than 5 Indian eateries in existence between Cambridge and Boston. Indian restaurants had an unpleasant reputation of oily and heavy foods, often too spicy for the novice palate. The décor in these establishments were tired and old and the service was, well, let’s say, ‘less than stellar’. Knowledge of food was very basic at the time. Non-Indian customers were not really familiar with the food, which made menu offerings in most places pretty standard fare. To top it off, the general public had many misconceptions about Indian food.

Along came the Kapoor Family in 1981 with their first restaurant – a 30 seat whole in the wall, basement -restaurant, Kebab-N-Kurry, located in the Back Bay area of Boston. The restaurant was “cozy” (cramped) to say the least. It had no liquor license or wine/beer license, but here is what it did have: the best Indian food in Boston. One thing that Vinod grasped right away was that they were not catering to an all Indian market. What made their product special was good quality fresh food, a friendly and family oriented atmosphere, and authentic recipes designed by Shikha. It was what Boston needed at the time. This restaurant quickly became the “go to” spot for Pakistani and Indian professionals and students as well as non-Indian residents in Back Bay, many of whom have followed the Kapoors on their journey into the suburbs and continue to dine at their current establishment, Masala Art.

In the first decade of business, the Kapoors mastered their operations of running a small restaurant. In 1991, Vinod sought to expand the business by opening another location, Bombay Club, in the world famous and tourist attraction known as Harvard Square. The restaurant was the first and largest Indian eatery of its kind in Boston offering regionalized authentic Indian cuisine. It also sported a fully licensed bar, and a fabulous view, surrounded by huge windows overlooking a park in Harvard Square, which gave the restaurant a romantic setting. The restaurant got rave reviews from many Boston food critics, newspapers and magazines. It was also featured on The Chronicle and on CNN news airing on flights from Boston to Europe. The Kapoors became known as the most prominent Indian restaurant owners in Boston/Cambridge. What separated this restaurant from others was its unique ambiance, something that Indian restaurant owners did not think about or offer in their establishments. Anyone who visited Boston, from all over the world, made their stop in Harvard Square and likely ate a meal at Bombay Club. That was the reach of this incredible restaurant.

But it didn’t stop there. The population of Indian families was growing in New England and the demand for Indian food was growing rapidly. As first generation Indian immigrants had filtered into the U.S. 80’s, their kids were now attending the best Universities in the Boston Area, Harvard being one of them. Graduation time was the busiest time of the year for the Kapoors, followed by the start of the summer, which sparked the wedding season. Indian weddings are known to the largest and by far the most extravagant of any culture. As the Indian community started to grow and children got older and were getting ready for marriage, a new problem arose. Where can one find an Indian caterer in Boston? Where can one host an Indian Wedding for 500 guests?

At a time when local Hotels were starving for wedding business, the prophetic Vinod Kapoor found an opportunity and partnered with some of the best hotels in Boston and Cambridge to offer Indian food catering services at hotels. It was genius. The hotels could now offer an authentic Indian meal for wedding without having to train their teams on Indian Cuisine. This gave them an opportunity to host large Indian weddings and to generate revenue from room sales at their facilities at the same time. This formula started with just a few hotels and now has become the norm for hotels in New England. Today, the Kapoors work with dozens of hotels, country clubs, and other banquet facilities in New England to cater weddings. The Kapoor family is the largest and most successful Indian caterer in the Boston Area. They have catered thousands of weddings over the years, and are now averaging over 100 weddings related events each summer.

After observing the business success of the Kapoors, many restaurant owners started to follow the Kapoor’s model for catering and for the restaurant. In 2001, The Kapoors felt that the market for Indian restaurants was somewhat saturated in the Boston and Cambridge area. With the influx of Indian restaurants coming into the city, competition became fierce amongst Indian restaurants. This sparked a few interesting things. 1) It improved the food quality amongst most restaurants, 2) the number of non-Indian customers was rapidly growing, which made the pie much bigger in terms of number of customers to target, and 3) the competition made it seem as though restaurants were fighting over the same customers, however, Kapoor realized that actually, many customers were coming from local cities and towns outside of the Boston/Cambridge areas. 4) Most restaurants were doing the exact same menu items with similar décor. Though the food was becoming more popular, the concept was quickly becoming repetitive and to a certain extent, archaic.

It was time for a new restaurant, with a new concept. The innovative mindset of the Kapoors led them to start exploring the idea of live cooking and ways to make Indian food more appealing to the mainstream population to try and attract more non-Indian customers. Since the customers were predominantly coming from the suburbs, Vinod and his son and business partner, Sorabh, decided that their next establishment should be located in a suburban town, which would be more accessible to patrons.

Back in 2001, when the Kapoors first began scouting for a suburban location, they came across the small town of Needham and noticed that the town had very few ethnic restaurants. In fact Chinese and Italian were pretty much the only diverse choices around. Furthermore, Vinod quickly realized that Needham was surrounded by some of the most affluent towns in Massachusetts, including Wellesley, Dover, Newton, and Weston. Thus, the Kapoors identified a location in Needham, which became the largest storefront in the town.

The Kapoor’s latest eatery, Masala Art, was unique to other Indian restaurants. The restaurant’s astounding design took close to three years to mastermind. The extended time spent is showcased in every detail of the restaurant, from the sculptures of Lord Ganesha (The God of Prosperity) behind the impressive and modern-looking bar, to the fiber-optic lighting that illuminate the main dining areas. The real exhibit however, is the “Spice Bar,” a chic nine-seat cooking bar where guests can interact with the chef and get an education on Indian spices and recipes as they enjoy exclusive, freshly prepared menu selections.

By moving into a suburban town, the Kapoors created an entirely new market for Indian cuisine in Boston. The restaurant was located on the main street in Needham and has public, free parking for patrons. This was a huge attraction for customers as they would no longer have to worry about finding parking in Cambridge or Boston. The 160 seat restaurant quickly became the go to spot for locals, and became a destination restaurant where customers could either enjoy a nice dinner or book large parties, something that city restaurants had trouble doing because of parking and traffic issues. It was the only restaurant of its kind and offered an amazing, reasonably priced space with by far, the most diverse menu Boston has ever seen. It was the perfect place for patrons to host graduations, birthdays, baby shower, anniversary parties, holiday events and corporate dinners. It also served as the hub for Vinod and Sorabh to meet with wedding clients for menu tastings and to expand their catering business. Today, they are the largest Indian caterer in the Greater Boston and New England Area.

It is amazing that over the course of 35 years, Vinod and Shikha took a small restaurant and expanded the concept to where it is today. If you have eaten Indian food in Boston, chances are that the food was influenced by Shikha. The restaurants the Kapoors have operated have served as institutions and training camps for young, hungry cooks to learn Indian cuisine eventually gone on to open their own establishments. The Kapoors have undoubtedly left their mark as the pioneers of Indian cuisine in Boston and the family plans to continue their legacy and success through Masala Art.