For his fast-casual concept, Chaska, owner Naveen Seth dreamed up a fresh take on Indian street food inspired by his childhood memories.
Growing up in India, Seth and his dad would travel from city to city to visit friends and family, stopping at colourful roadside restaurants called dhabas along the way. “You see the open-kitchen concept, live cooking happening and all these trucks with funny messages on them passing by and honking,” recalls Seth. “I had those vivid memories and I wanted to bring them to life here in Canada and introduce people to authentic Indian street food.”
The idea percolated in Seth’s mind for more than 15 years before it came to life. Seth, who immigrated to Canada in 1988, ran an Ottawa-based software-development company for a number of years. In the late ’90s, he and his business partner sold the company and Seth decided to pursue his true passion — food.
“I always had it in the back of my mind that I wanted to open an Indian restaurant, but a friend encouraged me to start with an existing concept,” says Seth. In 2000, he acquired the master-franchisee rights for Café Supreme for southern Ontario. The concept was rebranded as La Prep in 2010.
While Seth was expanding La Prep, his vision for an Indian restaurant slowly took shape.
“When I met with different landlords to secure sites for La Prep, I would ask them how familiar they were with Indian cuisine and how often they eat Indian food,” says Seth. “I realized people here only know about four or five Indian dishes, namely butter chicken, chicken tikka, chana malasa, samosa and naan.”
There was also the perception that Indian food is too rich and heavy. “When I developed my concept, I wanted to make sure I took care of these concerns,” says Seth.
His vision came to life in 2016 when Chaska, which means “obsession,” opened its first location in a plaza in a commercial area of Mississauga, Ont.
From the food to the decor, Chaska puts a different spin on your typical Indian restaurant in Canada. To start, the order-counter/kitchen has a colourful, life-size truck façade, giving customers the illusion they’re ordering from a food truck. Behind that is the open kitchen, where chefs cook up Chaska’s specialty: customizable meals in three steps. First is “choose your style.” Next is “build it up,” where customers can add a protein. The third step is “top it off,” where customers can pick their sauce spice level or type of dressing.
Dishes are made without thick and rich sauces. Rather, the chefs take the time to spice, marinate and slow cook the recipes. Ingredients are sourced locally wherever possible. The meats are halal, antibiotic- and hormone-free and never frozen. All of the menu offerings are made in-house.
Seth’s vision for Chaska was that it shouldn’t just be designed for people from India — but for anyone who likes spicy, flavourful food. “If people aren’t familiar with Indian cuisine, it’s difficult and overwhelming for them to walk into an Indian restaurant and place an order because they don’t know half of the dishes and they don’t know how to combine them,” he says. “I wanted to simplify the menu.”
The Mississauga location, which is surrounded by offices, does brisk lunch business. “And all these professionals come in and line up without hesitation because the menu is so simple and the food is so flavourful,” says Seth.
Chaska has a vibrant yet industrial feel, with open ceilings and dangling lights. The walls are adorned with colourful murals featuring playful sayings such as, “Eat, Pray, Love & Eat Again,” and “Horn Please,” a sign that adorns the colourful trucks on India’s highways. “The decor is modern and trendy,” says Seth. “Millennials love it. They walk into this restaurant and they say, ‘oh, we’ve never been to an Indian restaurant like this.’”
With business exceeding Seth’s expectations over the past couple of years, he’s ready to expand. There are four locations opening in downtown Toronto, including the Atrium on Bay, Adelaide and John Streets, an office building at 3 Concord Gate and Richardson Street and Queen’s Quay.
In the coming months, Chaska is also opening a commissary kitchen at its Mississauga head office where it will produce the sauces, marinades, chutneys and samosas for Chaska, as well as items for La Prep. “Whether you eat at Chaska in Mississauga or Chaska in downtown Toronto, the quality will be exactly the same,” says Seth.
Seth easily sees having 20 to 25 locations in the Greater Toronto Area and more than 100 locations Canada wide. With today’s consumer demographics and food trends, Seth says Chaska is well positioned for success.
“As Canada continues to grow in cultural diversity, so does the demand for ethnic foods,” he says. “That means our timing couldn’t be better, with the local population eager for different cuisines and flavourful food options. Although there are some good Indian restaurants here in Canada…Chaska is the first fast-casual Indian street-food concept that has all of the elements required to make it a success.”
Written by Rebecca Harris