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_molly-and-meherwan-irani_credit_Molly_Milroy.jpeg Molly Milroy
Chai Pani 2.0 is slated to open in April.

Meherwan Irani to move Chai Pani in Asheville, N.C., to a larger space

The old location will be reworked as fast-casual Botiwalla

Since 2009, Chai Pani in Asheville, N.C., has been serving Indian street food to wide acclaim. Over the past 15 years, business partners Meherwan and Molly Irani have expanded the business to include other locations, opened other concepts like their Botiwalla restaurants, launched a spice company, Spicewalla, and won countless awards including a James Beard Restaurant and Chefs Award for Outstanding Restaurant and the MenuMasters Innovator award by Nation’s Restaurant News.

One of the hallmarks of the original Chai Pani has been that it doesn’t take reservations, and waits can sometimes be more than two hours to snag a table at the modestly sized restaurant. After the closing of one of their other concepts, Buxton Hall Barbecue, the Iranis recognized a unique opportunity to move the restaurant into a much larger space, and begin to imagine what Chai Pani 2.0 might look like. It’s slated to open in April.  Meherwan Irani recently discussed the move.

Chai Pani has been thriving in its original space for so many years, what is the driving force behind moving it to a new location?

The original Chai Pani space was always a challenging space to work in and take care of our guests. The kitchen is tiny, there’s almost no storage, and the dining room is crowded and cramped. But it was part of the charm and we made it work. When the James Beard award happened, our customer count nearly doubled, and the space can’t keep up with the sheer volume of busyness. I’ve always said that a good business has an obligation to make it easy to be a customer. By moving to the new location, we’re going from 2,400 square feet to 10,000 and can provide an incredible customer experience worthy of Chai Pani’s fame.

What opportunities does the new space provide that you are most excited about?

There will be three times the seating — no more two-hour waits! — and much more space for equipment in the kitchen. We’ll be able to seat large groups and offer private dining and catering again. A big part of the Chai Pani experience is décor and storytelling and unique experiences. We’re able to lean in even more into décor and artworks. We’ll offer Pani Puri [stuffed deep-fried snacks] on the weekends and will even have a Bollywood themed bar upstairs.

Will the new space have a big impact on the menu? Are there dishes you just couldn’t execute in the original kitchen that will be possible now?

All the Chai Pani hits that are currently on the menu will stay but we are excited to bring in even more street food and regional Indian specialties  with more space and more equipment than we've ever had. As an homage to Buxton Hall, we’re retaining a smoker to create some wood fired low-and-slow recipes.

You are going to install a Botiwalla in the old space this summer. Why is that the right concept for that location?

The original Chai Pani was a counter service, fast-casual restaurant that evolved into a full-service restaurant. Its success also came with the compromise of changing my original vision for what a street food restaurant should look like. Botiwalla takes it back to the street vibe, fast and furious service: Our average ticket times are under 2 minutes. It’ll better serve both locals living or working downtown looking for a quick lunch or easy dinner, and downtown tourists who don’t want to wait an hour in line just to experience our food.

What are you most excited about with Botiwalla?

Firstly, we get to keep our beloved space where it all started. We often refer to that location as the mothership. I’m also excited about the efficiency that the Botiwalla concept will bring to that kitchen and dining room. It’ll be an experience that matches the space and vibes of a downtown dining scene.

How do you define the differences between a Chai Pani and a Botiwalla?

While Chai Pani is a celebration of chaat, the iconic street food of India, Botiwalla is our fast-casual concept paying homage to the near-extinct Irani cafes of my childhood and my particular love of all things grilled. The Chai Pani look is defined by the street hawkers and truck stops of India. Botiwalla’s decor is a play on the juxtaposition of the faded Victorian colonial influence in our architecture along with Parsi sensibilities and Bollywood themed nostalgia.

TAGS: Food & Drink
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