Choolaah Indian BBQ Prepares for Aug. 16 Opening in Boardman

BOARDMAN, Ohio — The owners of the area’s newest restaurant concept say they see the Mahoning Valley as key to their expansion in northeastern Ohio.

Owners Raji Sankar and Randhir Sethi are planning for an Aug. 16 opening of their newest Choolaah Indian BBQ restaurant in the South Park Square plaza on U.S. Route 224, in front of the former Kmart site. 

Sankar and Sethi are co-CEOs of Pittsburgh-based Wholesome International, a multiconcept restaurant development company that owns and operates Choolaah and is a Five Guys Burgers and Fries franchisee. 

Choolaah offers a menu that includes bowls, wraps and other Indian street foods prepared onsite with fresh ingredients such as lamb, chicken and salmon, as well as non-meat options. It also includes selections for vegetarian, vegan and gluten-free diets.   

“We take our ingredients very seriously. We make about 20-plus spice blends using 36-plus spices,” Sankar said. 

“Our food is going to be very flavorful but it’s not going to burn your mouth,” Sethi said. “We say anybody who cares about what they put in their body is a core customer of ours. We also believe life is too short to be boring, so our food is extremely flavorful.”  

“It definitely is a new twist when it comes to diversity in our food places,” said Stephanie Gilchrist, director of women and youth entrepreneurship programs at the Youngstown Business Incubator. 

Gilchrist, who met Sankar though mutual acquaintances, said she has been helping her “navigate through the Valley.” Sankar’s experiences of shifting from her traditional industry into a new field and all the challenges she has faced reminded Gilchrist of many of the women she has worked with at YBI, she said.   

Sethi and Sankar, both two serial technology entrepreneurs, met in 2001 and have been partners ever since, Sethi said. In 2003, they decided to enter the restaurant space.

“We felt that fast causal as a concept in general was going to disrupt the restaurant space,” he continued. They wanted to further disrupt it with its focus on “transformation of quality of life.” 

Their dream initially was to design an Indian fast casual concept because that was their shared culture and they felt the cuisine had depth, history and nourishment. In 2003, they drafted a business plan that outlined the concept of what would become Choolaah but shelved it because they didn’t have restaurant industry experience at the time and felt “the timing wasn’t quite right” for the concept, he recalled. 

Instead, they began as a Five Guys franchisee, opening their first unit in 2005, and they now operate restaurants in Pittsburgh and the Cleveland/Akron/Canton region. 

Reviving the business plan they wrote nearly a decade earlier, the entrepreneurs began work in 2012 on Choolaah. The first restaurant opened in Beachwood in 2014. 

“It’s Ohio born and raised,” Sankar said.   

Choolaah now has locations in Pittsburgh, the Philadelphia area and Virginia. The Mahoning Valley will be home to the chain’s sixth location and the first with a drive-thru window. As the company grows in northeastern Ohio, they see the area as “one of the key target markets for us,” Sethi said. They plan to have as many as 15 Choolaah restaurants by the end of 2022. 

“We’re so grateful we picked this community,” he said. “People here enjoy their food and love dining out.” 

The location between Pittsburgh and Cleveland “is actually the perfect spot to be,” Sankar added. 

The selection of the Valley for a Choolaah followed a search for communities that are rich in heritage and sense of community, Sethi said. “It really started from our vision of transforming the quality of life of everyone we touch,” from employees and guests to vendors. 

Growing up in a small steel town in India, Sankar acknowledged she didn’t appreciate the power of such a community, she acknowledged. 

“It seems like everybody supports each other,” she said. “Looking back, it’s very powerful when people have each other’s backs.” While she feels both Cleveland and Pittsburgh are strong communities, Youngstown “take[s] it up a notch,” she remarked.   

Sethi and Sankar have hired 31 employees thus far, and plan to hire up to 40. Employees can earn competitive wages including tips.

The restaurant already has hired 31 employees who began training this week. The target is to hire 35 to 40, she said. Employees receive competitive pay and benefits, and are permitted a free meal every shift. 

“A high school kid can pretty quickly rise up to $15 an hour, not counting tips,” Sethi said.  

Choolaah is closed for major holidays including Easter, Memorial Day, Christmas and Christmas Eve, Independence Day, Thanksgiving Day and Thanksgiving Eve.   

“When we started this organization, we wanted to be a people-focused organization,” Sankar said. 

“Those things make a big difference in the quality of life for the families,” Sethi said. “Raji often says we want to be the employer of choice.” 

He also pointed out that managing partners in the stores share financially in the stores’ success. 

Phil Faraglia of Youngstown is the Boardman restaurant’s managing partner. He said Choolaah’s mission, vision and values aligned with his beliefs. 

“Look at this place – it’s gorgeous. They do things top notch,” he said. 

Patrons can place their orders in store at the counter or a kiosk, or ahead of time online or via a mobile app. They can see food being prepared in the wide-open kitchen. The transparency is “inviting,” Sethi said. 

Before eating, patrons can use an automated hand washing – similar to ones in the kitchen – that sprays warm water on hands that they can wash using a sanitizing liquid. 

“It feels like you just had a little hand massage,” Sankar said. 

“Even pre-COVID we had these in every one of our restaurants,” Sethi said. The restaurant also has a state-of-the-art ventilation system that completely refreshes the interior with outside air every seven minutes.   

The bright aesthetics of the restaurant include locally crafted art pieces inspired by Indian Street art. On a wall near the entrance, Choolaah’s mission, vision and values are posted. 

In the rear of the building are a set of clocks that give the time in Boardman and in New Delhi, as well as two labeled “five minutes from now” and “yesterday.” Across from that is a wall with magnetic words that people can use to create sentences or poems.  

“The idea is transformation of mind and body, making people smile and enjoy themselves when they come in. The space reflects that same theme and mood,” Sethi said. 

Pictured at top: Co-founders Randhir Sethi and Raji Sankar are opening their sixth Choolaah Indian BBQ location in the former Boardman Kmart plaza.

Copyright 2021 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.