When 16-year-old Sagar Gurung first moved from Kathmandu, Nepal, to the United States in 1996, he and his sister would make Nepalese food. His neighbors – and management – were far from welcoming.
“Every time we cooked our food, which is very different than food here, I kid you not, the next day we’d get a letter from the management saying ‘whatever you’re cooking is bothering the neighbors, so either make sure it’s really well ventilated or just stop cooking,’” Gurung said.
Spoiler alert: Gurung didn’t ‘just stop cooking.’
Today, Gurung owns Himalayan Java, which opened in 2016, and Kathmandu Momo Station. Both locations – in the Blackstone District and at the Inner Rail – opened earlier this year. So far, the business strategy has been to keep everything small and take a slower approach.
Before he considered starting Kathmandu Momo, Gurung tested his momo at Himalayan Java for a year to ensure he and his partners—his wife, his best friend, Rocky and Aagya Subedi—weren’t getting into “hostile territory.”
“Every time you open anything like this, it’s hard on money,” he said. “It’s a risk and you never know what’s going to happen.”
After it seemed people were taking to the momo, Gurung started approaching “big-leagues” like Nite Owl, Block 16 and the Bánh Mì Shop to request pop-ups at their restaurants.
Once Kathmandu Momo’s brick-and-mortar was established in the Blackstone District in May, Gurung encouraged his business partner Subedi to test her ramen in the store.
When the Inner Rail developers invited Kathmandu Momo to join their project, however, Gurung said it was an easy offer to accept. Inner Rail was offering kitchen expertise and additional tools to assist Gurung and his team.
The location was “amazing,” too, Gurung said.
Not only do the Aksarben area businesses contain nearly 7,000 employees and serve UNO, the Aksarben park is frequented by Gurung and his daughter, Erica.
“It’s a very good ecosystem,” Gurung said. “When [the Inner Rail Developers] invited us, even though we had just opened our brick and mortar, we definitely wanted to seize the opportunity.”
The Kathmandu Momo stall is slightly bigger than its brick and mortar location, just enough to allow the team to add a few more items to their still-focused menu with about 10 products and a handful of small plates.
For some restaurateurs, a stall would be a drawback, but Gurung’s Momo shops are holes in the wall by design.
“That’s how we wanted it because that’s how little momo shops are back home,” Gurung said. “A restaurant setup is more of an opportunity that you seize than a well-thought-out process.”
Both the size of his shops and the style of communication his employees use are part of Gurung’s desired culture.
At each of Gurung’s businesses, he said he wants to foster a culture reminiscent of what he experienced growing up in Kathmandu, Nepal. Coffee shops and momo shops were hubs of activity and community, where people of all age groups got together at all hours of the day.
“The tea and coffee shops back home are a microcosm of that community,” Gurung said. “Even if you’re an outsider, if you sit there for 15 minutes, you’ll get a feel of what this community looks like.”
The culture Gurung wants to foster, he said, is one where a busy day can sound like a “fish market.” Employees will shout to one another about food orders, taking special care to satisfy their customers, and their customers will feel at home.
“It’s not necessarily a quiet library setup or people just come in and do their homework or read –that happens, too – but it’s more of a vibrant meetup place.”
Gurung said he wants his customers to feel like they’re a part of the action and the communication.
“When I say culture, that’s what I want,” Gurung said. “I think in the long run, the noise is what I really like about the place. I like the communication happening. It just feels like you’re part of, not just Inner Rail, but Kathmandu food culture.”
With about 3 and a half years of business expertise, a team of “rock stars” as employees and a welcoming and engaged community, Gurung said he finally understands what it means not to work for life.
“That [experience with my sister] was 24 years ago,” Gurung said. “Fast forward to now—I can’t even tell you how amazing it feels for people to embrace our food. And with the food, they also embrace our culture. I want to say thank you to everybody who swings by and asks for that large or small momo, ramen and some extra spicy hot sauce.”