Each of the 45 Yellow Chilli locations worldwide, including branches in Oman and Canada, is designed to look more or less the same on the inside. The Buena Park interior is stripped-down and neutral-toned, more contemporary and minimalist than colorful and Indian-inspired. Inside the entrance is a high-contrast black-and-white image of Mr. Kapoor.
The menu is dominated by hearty north Indian dishes that are signatures of Mr. Kapoor, like the rich lentil stew Lalla Mussa Dal, and Shaam Savera, spinach-coated cheese dumplings submerged in a thick tomato gravy. Mr. Ghotra and Ms. Kaur hired all of the restaurant’s kitchen staff themselves, and then the corporate chef for Mr. Kapoor’s company, Pradipto Das, flew in to help with menu development and training.
But the couple have their own ideas about how best to appeal to the American market.
First, they’re looking to target only Indian-Americans, who may be more familiar with the chef. “I don’t want to run after any other crowd,” Mr. Ghotra said. “This brand is so deep in Indian minds. But for non-Indians who don’t know him, it will take a couple of years to cultivate that brand.”
Buena Park attracts hordes of tourists to attractions like Knott’s Berry Farm, but the couple plan instead to appeal to the large Indian populations in nearby cities like Irvine and Artesia. “If 5,000 people come once a month and spend $25, that is our break-even,” Ms. Kaur said.
The restaurant will participate in South Asian wedding expos, local festivals surrounding Indian holidays like Holi and Diwali, and events for groups of South Asian college students. For the grand opening, Ms. Kaur hopes to invite Indian-Americans in the area for two days of ticketed dinners and cooking demonstrations featuring Mr. Kapoor, who will fly in for the occasion.
The couple are also looking into turning the restaurant’s adjacent banquet hall — a sprawling space with disco balls, flashy chandeliers and shiny, pearl-white wallpaper — into a club for young Indian-Americans. The restaurant hosted a New Year’s Eve party; the 350 tickets, priced from $100 to $125, sold out two weeks in advance.
They are thinking about painting the exterior white, to make it stand out more among the other flamboyant attractions in the area. To lend a more high-end feel, they’ve been testing a valet parking service, even though the restaurant has its own 66-car lot.
“People started complaining, saying, ‘How could you have so much parking, and then I have to pay for it?’” Mr. Ghotra said. “But we are just trying to create a certain experience.”
Mr. Ghotra and Ms. Kaur say they have sunk almost $1 million into the space. “We sold our house and a few other possessions,” Ms. Kaur said. “We told the kids, ‘Your college money is in there.’”
In addition to overhead costs, they pay a franchise fee and monthly royalties to Mr. Kapoor’s company. “People said, ‘You could open a restaurant with $200,000 — why invest close to a million?’” Mr. Ghotra said. “It’s because we wanted to create a brand.”
Neither sees this investment as a gamble.
“Everybody at some point in time is connected to Sanjeev Kapoor,” Ms. Kaur said. “They see him on YouTube, they read the books. It’s a safe bet. You don’t have to educate people. A risk is when you put in a million dollars and don’t get it ever. We know we will get our million, and with those intangible benefits attached.”
By “intangible benefits,” Ms. Kaur was referring to the celebrity that she believes she and her husband have attained ever since they started associating with Mr. Kapoor.
“In my M.B.A. WhatsApp group, I am the star,” she said. “We just want to be recognized. We want to make enough Benjamins, but if you are not recognized, what the heck?”
The couple name-dropped some of their most recent restaurant guests, including the mayor of Artesia, Ali Sajjad Taj, and the owner of MS International, Mr. Ghotra’s former employer, Manu Shah. “He is a billionaire!” Mr. Ghotra said of Mr. Shah. “He wanted to take a picture with us. All the big shots in the area want to shake hands with us.”
Ms. Kaur exclaimed, “We can go down in Wikipedia as the guys who got Sanjeev Kapoor to America!”
While Yellow Chilli has been in soft-opening mode, locals have slowly been filtering in, curious to try the restaurant when they see the Sanjeev Kapoor connection.
Tushar Sobti used to frequent the Yellow Chilli in Jalandhar, where he grew up. He was excited to try the Buena Park location, but ultimately felt that some of the dishes fell short. “Have a spoonful of Lalla Mussa Dal in India, and have a spoon of it here. It’s just different,” he said. “I can’t explain it. It’s more flavorful in India.”
“A lot more flavorful,” added another young customer, Ruchika Sinha, who had eaten at a different Yellow Chilli in India.
But on hearing about the grand opening event featuring Mr. Kapoor, Ms. Sinha’s eyes lit up. “Really? He’s coming here?” she asked. “Maybe I’ll stop by.”
Kamal Singh, who runs India House, a Buena Park restaurant started by his parents, said that even though there is a lot of buzz around the Yellow Chilli, “what separates a franchise and a family-run restaurant is personal connections: Those will always win in the long term.”
He said it could be difficult for the Yellow Chilli to resonate deeply in the community, because with a franchise “there is always an agenda to just make more money.”
Mr. Ghotra and Ms. Kaur envision turning the Yellow Chilli into an American chain — “the Indian answer to Olive Garden: authentic Indian food for the middle class,” Mr. Ghotra said. They would also like to open branches of Mr. Kapoor’s fast-casual chain, the Yellow Chilli Express, in the Los Angeles airport and local strip malls.
Someday, they said, they’ll bring Mr. Kapoor’s fine dining restaurant, Signature by Sanjeev Kapoor, to the Las Vegas Strip. “I’d love to open at Mandalay Bay, or the Wynn, or the Cosmopolitan — anything central and modern,” Mr. Ghotra said. “Maybe the Trump hotel?”
Ms. Kaur cut in: “That’s vetoed.”
The two think frequently about what they will do when they make their first million from the restaurant: They’ll finally take down that Buddha statue (they’re too superstitious to do so right now), buy an expensive house in the Hollywood Hills and open a Hard Rock Cafe-style restaurant for Bollywood movies.
“It’s all thanks to God,” Ms. Kaur said, before quickly correcting herself. “I mean, thanks to Sanjeev Kapoor.”
Recipe: Lalla Mussa Dal
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