A Restaurant That Serves Up A Side Of Social Goals

Jan 1, 2015
Originally published on January 1, 2015 7:23 pm

This is part of a series of stories about starting over, profiling people who, by choice or circumstance, reinvented or transformed themselves.

When Srirupa Dasgupta came to the U.S. from India to attend college in the mid-1980s, she was determined to work in high-tech, not the restaurant industry. But today, she owns a small restaurant and catering service in Lancaster, Pa., and employs primarily refugees who might have trouble finding work elsewhere.

After college, Dasgupta worked her way up the corporate ladder — from software engineer to manager at a healthcare company. Just about the time the tech bubble burst in the late-1990s, she started getting burned out and was looking for something different.

"The starting-over point wasn't like a Big Bang thing. It was kind of a migration," says Dasgupta, while in the kitchen of her restaurant, Upohar — the Bengali word for "gift."

After leaving the high-tech world, she started a family and trained as an executive coach, sort of a consultant to business leaders. Then in 2008 she heard Nobel Peace Prize recipient Muhammad Yunus speak about for-profit businesses that also have a social objective.

"I kept thinking about this concept, and I was really intrigued. I just couldn't let it go. ... I was possessed," Dasgupta says.

Helping refugees interested her. She grew up hearing stories of her grandparents fleeing what is now Bangladesh in 1947 — and Lancaster has an active refugee community.

In 2010, Dasgupta opened Upohar as a catering business with a social mission of hiring refugees and others, such as homeless people, who have difficulty finding work. Last April she expanded and opened a restaurant. Employees are paid double the minimum wage, which is $7.25 an hour in Pennsylvania.

Tulsha Chauwan is a chef at the restaurant. Her family fled Bhutan in South Asia and then spent years in a refugee camp in Nepal before the U.S. granted permission to come here. Her favorite dish to make is eggplant tarkari, a dish that's special to her because her mother taught her to make it.

Dasgupta says Chauwan was very shy at first, but now she's bringing in new recipes regularly, hoping her boss will put them on the menu.

Rachel Bunkete is lead chef at Upohar and has her own favorite dish to cook: peanut stew. She learned how to make it growing up in the Democratic Republic of Congo in Central Africa.

In 2008 she fled the political, ethnic and religious conflicts there. Bunkete had to leave behind her husband and three children. Eventually she got permission to come to the U.S. Here she was able to make contact with her family again.

"They are not here for now. I am alone," says Bunkete, whose family is in Nigeria and is expected to join her within a few months. She's saving money from her job to make that happen.

Upohar has only three regular employees and has yet to turn a profit. Dasgupta hopes business will pick up in the New Year, and she says, for her, starting over has meant starting small. But, she says, that's OK.

"I'm just going to focus on making a difference right here," Dasgupta says, "and if it grows beyond that, that's wonderful. But if it doesn't, then it will have made an impact [on] my neighbors."

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