Raji Sankar wants Choolaah to be an experience.
The Indian restaurant, which opened its first Fairfax County location in Merrifield’s Mosaic District on Wednesday, aims to bring the quality food and atmospheric elegance of a fine dining establishment to a fast-casual setting.
“Choolaah really is at the intersection of authenticity, accessibility and affordability,” Sankar, one of Choolaah’s founders and CEOs, said. “Every element is designed and curated with love…When you walk into Choolaah, hopefully, what you’ll say is that we wowed you on all fronts.”
Sankar and co-CEO Randhir Sethi started Choolaah last year in Orange Village, a suburb of Cleveland, Ohio, through their company Wholesome International, a restaurant group founded in 2004 that also now operates more than 20 Five Guys Burgers and Fries restaurants in Ohio and Pennsylvania.
Running Five Guys franchises gave Sankar and Sethi the experience and confidence they needed to launch a potential fast-casual restaurant chain of their own, one that speaks more toward their personal and cultural identities.
According to the restaurant’s website, the name Choolaah comes from the phrase “sanja chulha,” which refers to the community ovens that families in ancient northern India gathered around to eat and share stories.
One of Choolaah’s goals, then, is to introduce that tradition to modern U.S. consumers.
“We had had this vision of transforming how Indian food is perceived and experienced,” Sankar said.
In addition to boasting a large community table that Sankar says tends to be one of the “most sought-after” seating areas, the design of each Choolaah restaurant centers around a row of four tandoor ovens placed behind glass so that patrons can watch their food being cooked.
This transparency is one of the main ways in which Choolaah distinguishes itself from the many other Indian restaurants that can be found in ethnically and culturally diverse regions like Fairfax County.
Visitors can not only see how their food is made, but they also have a variety of menus that they can choose from to ensure that their meal will suit their individual dietary preferences.
While Choolaah specializes in barbequed meats, it also offers vegetarian and vegan options, such as a paneer cheese barbeque or a masala bowl with chickpeas and rice, as well as dairy-free, gluten-free, egg-free, and onion and garlic-free dishes.
Diners can also choose from different sauces that range in spice level from a cool mint yogurt sauce to the choolaah lava for “heat lovers only,” according to the restaurant’s online menu.
Sankar says that one of the biggest challenges she and Sethi faced when establishing Choolaah and developing the menu was staying true to Indian cooking traditions without alienating potential customers.
“How do you keep something authentic and, at the same time, accessible and approachable?” Sankar asked. “We think we’ve found that balance.”
When Choolaah opened in Orange Village, Ohio, its founders were not sure how the restaurant would be received, so they were surprised by the extent to which it was ultimately embraced by the local populace, including people who had never tried Indian food before.
“The fact that we have customers of all demographics, all backgrounds, all incomes, and especially kids, it’s just exciting to watch,” Sankar said.
Their expectations for Choolaah’s Fairfax branch are likely a little different.
According to Sankar, Fairfax County stood out as an ideal location for expansion, because she and Sethi were looking to enter a major metropolitan market, and they liked the region’s diverse, multicultural demographics.
Located on Lee Highway, Merrifield’s Mosaic District has flourished since its first venue – the Angelika Film Center – opened its doors in September 2012. It was among the region’s first mixed-use developments, where residential and commercial properties exist in close proximity to each other to create an almost urban environment.
Choolaah should appear right at home in a neighborhood with restaurants that offer a variety of international and specialized cuisine, from Mexican and Thai food to ramen, dumplings, and even farm-to-table oysters.
Sankar and Sethi hope to continue spreading Choolaah through the mid-Atlantic region and along the East Coast, but they also want to ensure that each new venue lives up to their standards. So, for now, the pair are concentrating on making the Mosaic District restaurant a success.
Along with producing delicious food, they plan to support the community by hiring Fairfax County residents, including the 45 employees currently at Choolaah, and working with local schools and nonprofit organizations.
“Our hope is that we’re a huge contributor to the Fairfax community,” Sankar said. “We truly want to transform the quality of life of everyone we touch. That’s really what we set out to do, and we have the opportunity to deliver happiness and delight hundreds of times every single day to our guests.”