Episode 4: Roni Mazumdar | Life of a Polymath
Updated: Feb 3, 2019
What if I fail? Who the hell cares? Fail a few times! I would rather try and fail and evolve than never try at all! To me, it’s the most basic of how anything should be run.
Below is the audio transcript for Episode 4, lightly edited for clarity:
Hey there, it’s Lynne with Episode 4 of Rock the Boat.
This week, we talk to Roni Mazumdar, whose bold approach to life might shake you up a bit.
Roni is many things - an entrepreneur, actor, tech startup founder, dad, and in a former life, an engineer - but today he’s primarily a restaurateur.
If you’re a foodie in NYC, you may have visited one of his three restaurants. They include Rahi, a high-end artisanal Indian restaurant in the West Village; The MasalaWala in the Lower East Side, featuring South Asian street style cuisine; and Adda, an Indian canteen that recently opened to much acclaim in Long Island City. Last year, the New York Times even named Adda one of 2018's 10 best new restaurants in NYC.
Full disclosure: I’ve known Roni since the early days, when he opened his very first restaurant The Masala Wala. We’re good friends at this point. But I knew even then, within minutes of meeting him, that his passion for customers and creating amazing experiences around regional Indian fare was something special.
In this episode, I speak with Roni about:
• His early years in America,
• What the American dream means to him,
• How his many interests fuel his creativity,
• And his advice on how to become what you’re truly meant to be.
For anyone who is interested in a lot of different things, Roni’s advice will shed light on how to explore as many of them as possible...without forsaking your bank account. You’ll also hear Roni talk about overcoming the fear of failure and why he thinks combining acting with his engineering degree was one of the best moves he ever made.
I. Roni’s Origin Story: India, A Fruit Cart, and The Beginning of a Flame
Lynne: Roni and I met up a few times over the last year, so what you’ll hear is a compilation of our conversations about his journey
Roni: I come from fairly humble beginnings in India, but that wasn’t the defining factor in my life. Grew up in a fairly comfortable setting. Didn’t know what it was to be hungry but at the same time didn’t have the opulence of 20 cars and all of that stuff.
The biggest shift in my life happened when I first moved here with this idea that in America, the roads were paved in gold and it was anything but because I moved to the Bronx. Oh God.
Lynne: It didn’t take long for Roni to realize the roads weren’t exactly paved in gold. But he still felt blessed to be able to come to America.
Roni: The state I grew up in was called West Bengal and that state was ruled by communism. That created an inward looking society where you’re not really, smart people don’t talk too much, this whole individuality thing was a little weird.
I didn’t understand any of it as a kid. I was this oddball that was just all over the place. I was an outcast because of it. The challenge was, I found that society to be incredibly stifling. I didn’t like the constant repetition. I was very mediocre in school.
Now all of a sudden, I move here. Compared to India where certain categories of society are set for certain families. If you wanted to be an actor, you had to come from a certain family. Very few if any make it. All of a sudden I had a level playing field.
Lynne: Kolkata, the capital of West Bengal where Roni was born, was also the base for the world's longest-serving democratically elected communist government. Opportunities were limited. Like Roni said, it was a place where you did everything possible to avoid standing out and life was predetermined for you. In order to provide a better future for his family, Roni’s dad sacrificed his career as a lawyer, left India and brought the family over to America for a better education and more opportunities. It wasn’t easy in the beginning.
Roni: My father and I used to have a little fruit cart in Downtown Manhattan. My idea of hospitality started there, at the age of 13, waking up at 3 am pushing a fruit cart next to my father. That’s where it started. Every day, every fruit, every customer, every little bit mattered.
Lynne: Roni learned a lot from this experience. He credits his time on the streets, selling fruit with his father as the best lesson in hospitality he could ever ask for, which would ultimately play a big role in building his restaurant business.
Roni: What it taught me is that there isn’t a job that is too small. Here was a man who was educated, who all of a sudden took this massive leap in life at a much later state with the hope that his son one day make something of himself.
Every day that I went there [to the fruit stand] I never looked down upon it but I recognized this was the start of something and I have to take it much much farther than that. That’s where the idea of hospitality, how to serve people - really began to be instilled. That personal touch is where it all started coming together.
Lynne: Roni also quickly realized that he wanted more for his family than just a little fruit cart. He wasn’t willing to sell fruit his entire life. He recalls a vivid memory from one of the mornings he was selling fruit with his father.
Roni: I still remember... It was a rainy day and we were stuck in the parking lot. And an Afghani man, says “I guess, this is our life”. And it was at that very moment, that I told myself, no it’s not. This is the beginning. That’s when a 13 year old was starting to make decisions for him decides, “I have to transform not just my life but everyone around me.”
It was the beginning of a flame and there’s a fire that starts to burn within you. You start to get this gnawing emotion within you to keep striving for a little bit more without even realizing where your pivotal point even lies.
Roni: You start to push harder every day within the realm of your own imagination.
Lynne: With this newfound conviction, Roni pushed ahead. He started to focus more on school and get better grades. He understood the reason that his parents moved from India to America was, so he could forge a better life in a place where he could realize his dreams.
Roni ended up graduating from college with an engineering degree and secured a job at Johnson & Johnson in their enterprise mobile strategy group. It felt like he made it. He was making good money for his family, bought a house for his parents, and got married.
Over the 9 years at Johnson and Johnson, Roni started a few companies and even went to film school. But somewhere in the midst of all of his projects, Roni had an idea, a bit of an unconventional one: he was going to open a restaurant... for his father...as a retirement gift. And that’s how the MasalaWala was born.
II. Dreams Realized: Opening The MasalaWala
Lynne: It’s here on the corner of Delancey and Essex in the Lower East Side where the seeds for The MasalaWala were planted. Sandwiched between a parking garage and a burger joint is this tiny restaurant, so tiny you might walk past it if you aren’t paying attention.
Seven years ago, I came in looking for a respite from the cold. I had just moved to New York in the throes of winter and was in the midst of applying to jobs. The MasalaWala beckoned me with its rich brown decor, a warm cup of Masala chai, free wi-fi.
Of course, you can’t enter this restaurant without meeting the MasalaWala himself - the man behind the name - Roni’s father, who Roni gifted the restaurant to as a retirement gift. It’s his side profile that is famously framed in the restaurant’s logo.
Here’s Roni as he explains the full manifestation of The MasalaWala.
Roni: To me, my responsibility was to make sure that not just myself but my family was ok. When you talk about self-actualization, it’s not self but family’s actualization! I’m happy, but what about my father...If he could do anything what could it be?
I thought of everything and along came this idea that he could be really good with food, it was so simple...I mean, I was looking at Craigslist to find the location! That’s how I found my first location…
By realizing my father’s dream it allowed me to realize my own. I didn’t know if MasalaWala would work. It was the most exciting, exhilarating experience ever. It’s a tiny hole-in-the wall with a shoestring budget, but somehow it took off.
Lynne: Roni attributes much of the success of the restaurant to his father’s natural connection with people.
Roni: He has this magical ability to simply have these magnetic conversations with people. I believe sincerely that he’s born with it. He’s unapologetically himself and somehow when we are that authentic it attracts people to you.
Lynne: The restaurant also derives inspiration from India’s age-old culinary affair with spice. (The Masala Wala literally means “merchant of spice”.)
But not all Indian food is spicy. Each of Roni’s restaurants takes a distinct spin on the cuisine, shining light on a different region of India and the variations in their cooking styles.
His hope is that he can upend the American notion that Indian food is simply “curry in a hurry ”.
Roni: Why restaurants? With Indian cuisine, there is a void, it’s a peripheral, a hole in the wall experience, or really high end...It doesn’t really have a seat at the table if you think about it. It is nowhere close to being regarded with French, the Italian..We, as my generation, have that responsibility for our future to move that narrative forward.
Lynne: Roni loves incorporating a sense of history and culture into his restaurant decor.
For example, at his new restaurant in Long Island City, he has Indian newspapers from the last 100 years plastered on the walls. He gets his inspiration from his multiple interests in photography, film, and tech. And while he jokes that he’s a little ADD, he suspects that his restaurants wouldn’t be the same if he stayed solely focused on one thing.
Roni: If you want to be a successful operator of a tech company, restaurant, I believe that you must do other things where you’re able to draw inspiration from. Otherwise you’re one of many. You are confined in your vision. One of the biggest factors that brought change to my life is going to acting school.
III(a). Acting School
Lynne: Alright, let’s backtrack here for a bit. As we mentioned before, years before he started The Masala Wala, Roni was an engineer at Johnson and Johnson. At that time, he also felt the itch to try acting. Talk about a fusion of opposites! But Roni says he couldn’t help himself. Through acting, he was able to tap into a softer, more emotional side.
Roni: I was in engineering and I recognized that I was horribly devoid of the arts. The arts are incredibly looked down upon in Indian culture in terms of profitability.
In engineering school, I took a theater class because I was desperately seeking this rounded nature in my life and got into Lee Strausberg.