One of the oldest mithai (Indian sweets) shops in the country is undergoing a major transformation. Rajbhog Sweets, located at 72-27 37th Avenue between 72nd and 73rd streets in Jackson Heights, temporarily shuttered after business concluded last night. Later this week, the nearly 40-year-old shop will be reborn as Bombay Kitchen, a new fast-casual Indian restaurant with a build-your-own-meal option.
While the owners will remain the same, the business with six locations across the East Coast is changing in hopes of reaching a wider audience, says Pankaj Kumar, director of franchise operations at the company. Since opening in 1980, Rajbhog Sweets has mostly served the Gujarati immigrant community in the U.S. with a large variety of sweets and vegetarian snacks like gulab jamun (a syrupy ball), papri chaat (a street snack), and aloo tikki (potato cutlets). By moving to a fast-casual model with several non-vegetarian offerings like chicken tikka rolls, keema pav, and tandoori wings, the owners want to attract a larger swath of the South Asian diaspora, plus a younger generation of Americans attracted to grab-and-go options.
“We wanted to show people that we can do multicultural food from India, whether it is South Indian, North Indian, or Gujarati,” says Sachin Mody, an owner of Rajbhog.
Bombay Kitchen’s menu allows diners to pick a bowl or plate option, and each is customizable with a variety of proteins, sauces, lentils, rice, and salad. It will also have a variety of chaats including bhel puri and samosas. Other notable items on the menu include dosas, kachoris (a type of spicy, savory Indian pocket), kebabs, and kathi rolls with various fillings including chicken tikka, lamb, and paneer. The restaurant will also have vegan and gluten-free options, and all of the meat products will be halal.
The space won’t get a major overhaul; it will still seat between 16 to 18 people but will receive an updated decor including family photos and images that track the growth of the Rajbhog brand over the past four decades.
Not all of the existing Rajbhog locations will move over to the fast-casual model immediately. The Jackson Heights store is being used as a test for the fast-casual concept, and based on its success, other franchisees can choose to rebrand as Bombay Kitchen or remain Rajbhog Sweets. Later this year, the Modys will debut a new Bombay Kitchen in Toledo, Ohio, followed by a third location in Cincinnati next summer. The company also wants to open two new locations in Manhattan next year, too, Kumar says, though the discussions are still in the early stages.
As for the mithai side of the business, Rajbhog will begin selling pre-packaged sweets boxes at Bombay Kitchen that will retain the Rajbhog logo, as well as a smaller selection of individual sweets. Customers will also have the option of ordering sweets online — Rajbhog has five sweets factories on the East Coast and ships across North America — and that side of the business will continue to operate as Rajbhog Sweets.
Bombay Kitchen now joins a growing list of fast-casual restaurants in New York that aim to broaden the definition of Indian food in the U.S.. Inday, which sells lunch bowls similar to Sweetgreen and Dig Inn, has two locations in Manhattan, and Deep Indian Kitchen, formerly Indikitch, has five locations in Manhattan and serves customizable plates of biryani, dosas, and curries.
The decision to go fast-casual marks a major change for Rajbhog, a company that began as a tiny sweets store in Jackson Heights in 1980.
Sachin’s parents Ajit and Lata started it just over a decade after they emigrated from Mumbai, India, to New York. Lata craved sweets and street food from home, but there were barely any options at that time. Instead she decided to work with a small group of mithai producers in South Plainfield, New Jersey, and began selling the sweets from Jackson Heights. On opening day, there were 45 different types of mithai available, including jalebi, and kaju barfi, a diamond-shaped sweet made with cashews and studded with silver foil.
“It started off just like any other business with a vision and a dream to see if we could do something good and if we could succeed,” Sachin says. “When my mom opened the first Rajbhog, she never thought there would be more than one store.”
A few years after the Jackson Heights store opened, Rajbhog acquired its own factory in Flushing and began producing everything in-house. In the mid-’90s, the Modys franchised the business with the opening of a second store in New Jersey. Sachin joined the business in 1997, and with his brother Sanjiv, has been working to expand Rajbhog’s reach.
Bombay Kitchen in Jackson Heights opens on Friday.
Update: This story has been updated to correct Pankaj Kumar’s name.
Tanay Warerkar is an NYC-based food writer, and in his spare time you can find him taking on new culinary challenges in the kitchen.