My name is Sesha Iyengar.
INTERVIEWED BY Nikhil Jammalamadaka


DEPARTED FROM
Mysuru, India

ARRIVED IN
New York City, New York

YEAR
1984

AGE
36

NOW LIVES IN
South Plainfield, New Jersey

COLLECTED BY

When and how did you first travel to the U.S.?

I had lived in Mysuru my entire life, as a very conservative, family-oriented person. I had been working as the personal secretary to the Commissioner of Taxes for almost 12 years. In June 1984, my sister got me a visitor visa to the U.S. and convinced me to visit her. It was a very long journey, because there was no straight flight. I had to travel from Bengaluru to Delhi, after which I flew to London for a layover, and then finally I landed at the John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York City. The moment I saw my sister at the airport, my fatigue disappeared! We met each other warmly and stopped to have coffee at the airport. After that, we headed back to our apartment in Elmhurst, Queens.

What was your first impression of the U.S.?

Honestly, I didn't want to leave my extended family and come to America. But I felt compelled, given how caring and helpful my sister was and how much she wanted me to be here. However, nothing felt comfortable – I felt like a fish out of water. I had been in a joint family since my birth. I was personally a very conservative guy and I was very content with my life in Mysuru. I had a good position, a high social status, and a wide network of friends. I had a reached a position where I did not need to work too hard and could focus on enjoying my wonderful life. However, in the U.S., I had landed in an unfamiliar place where I did not know anyone other than my sister. I missed all my friends, my uncle, and the rest of my family back in India. It was particularly challenging to build a social network because in those days there were very few Indians in the area. It is hard to imagine given the number of Indians we see today.

How long did it take to finally build your social network?

The situation improved 6 months later when I started working for a travel agency in Manhattan. By that time, I had moved out of my sister’s home. Then I reconnected with a couple of my friends who happened to be in Manhattan. Through them, I connected with a few local Kannadigas, through whom I got the second and third jobs. However, expanding the social network was still challenging – I used to leave home around 8:30AM and come home late at 1AM. With this kind of a schedule, it was difficult to make new friends. Eventually, I found my own apartment, and I interestingly had a Punjabi neighbor who helped me get a great job at American Airlines. They then sent me to Dallas to get trained on SABRE, which was their travel reservation system. And that started a very different phase of my life.

What were your experiences with Americans during these initial years?

They were genuinely nice, professional, and helpful people. For instance, during the training in Dallas, we were placed in a hotel and from there we used to shuttle between the facility and the hotel. And there were about 12 people – all American, nine women (all white and mostly Jewish) and three men. Those women were so considerate towards me, especially when they came to know that I was a pure vegetarian. They made it a point to guide me on what I could and could not eat! That training really boosted my confidence. Once I completed my training, I was asked to work as a SABRE instructor training new agents looking to open smaller branches all over the country. Given my frequent interactions with so many different people who were all very open and welcoming, I became quite comfortable with the local culture. For someone who felt like a fish out of water in the beginning, it was like I had found water. My work with American Airlines lasted about four years – from 1984 to 1988.

When and how did you finally decide to settle in the U.S.?

Despite my increasing comfort with the U.S., I still considered returning to India. American Airlines even sponsored my green card. I got a letter from the immigration services department, but I completely ignored it. Then a few months later, I happened to be near an immigration office and remembered the letter. I walked in and showed them my ID. They took me through a short interview, took my picture, and told me my green card will be in the mail. Within one week, I got the green card in the mail! No one can believe this, given all the challenges people face with their green card process today.

How did the rest of your family join you in the U.S.?

Once I got my green card in 1988, I told my boss that I now needed a vacation to visit my family. They were thrilled to see me after such a long time. All my brothers were in the Indian Navy – one was a shipman, another worked on a submarine. When I asked if anybody was interested in moving to the US, everybody said yes. I then had to get the passports from them and their families, and I discovered that my Income Tax Officer’s brother was a passport officer. We went to him at 11AM and by 3PM we had passports for all of them. On June 10, 1988, I took my family to the Madras consulate. During this time, if you were a green card holder, you didn’t have to stand in line – you could walk straight into the facility. So I went back to the American consulate and they welcomed me with open arms. I explained that my family wanted to visit the U.S. and the immigration officer was more than glad to help – she stamped the passports and visas for all of them. Within a few weeks we were all back in the U.S. That was a hugely different time as far as immigration was concerned.

There was another twist along the way – when I returned to work, I asked my manager to give me one station as I did not have to keep traveling. Up to that point, I had really enjoyed my tenure with American Airlines because I was able to travel all around the world! My manager was also very appreciative of my willingness to travel because I was one of the few Indian kids in the company who was able to achieve such fast growth, from trainee to instructor. However, I could not continue in that mode because my family was coming from India. Since they were going to be in a new country and they would be staying in my apartment in Jersey City, I could not keep traveling like this. However, my manager just gave me two options – continue or quit. I chose the latter! So by the time my family reached the U.S., I had quit my job and I was just hanging around, open to employment.

How did your restaurant come to be?

There is actually a long story. When my family came to the U.S., I spent time taking them to local attractions such as temples. But in those days, most of these places were all far-off, and so I had to take help from the Punjabi gentleman I mentioned earlier, as he had a station wagon. On one such trip, we were visiting a Hindu temple in Pittsburgh, where we ran into one of my sister-in-law's friends. We invited them to our home that weekend, where they were so amazed by my cooking that they suggested that I start a catering business – and this was not even two weeks after me quitting my job at American Airlines.

Now, honestly, at that time, none of us had any idea how to start a catering business. In September of 1988, however, sometime after I got another job with American Express in travel services, a friend came in to discuss potential formats for the catering business. One thing he suggested was that we post flyers in the local temple, because that's where most of the Indian people come on the weekends. So, that was what I did during Suprabhata Seva the very next weekend. In that same evening at 7:00 P.M., we got a call from one of the local Indian doctors, who was from Mangaluru, saying he wanted catering for a wedding. I was so overjoyed that I immediately went out and purchased the Motorola cell phone – the first cell phone that had ever been released. We then got another order for about 100 people catering at a church in Manhattan. My brother, Murali, who was a submarine engineer, built a custom stove to enable us to cook at that scale. The orders kept coming in. We soon had our first $1,000+ order!

Once we had catered a few events, our clients started demanding that we open a restaurant, because they wanted a way to enjoy our food without having to cater an event! We then started with a space of less than 500 square feet located in the India Square neighborhood on Newark Avenue in Jersey City. The landlord struck a hard bargain – he wanted $1,200 in rent and 50% of the profits! But we simply took the offer, as we did not have many alternatives. Once the restaurant started, it was a huge commitment. I would go to American Express in the morning, come back by 5:00 P.M., and then work in the kitchen through closing time. I did this to give my sisters-in-law a break since they would have been cooking in the kitchen all day. In about one and a half years, the restaurant was well-established and we had made enough profit – so, I felt confident enough to quit my American Express job.

Then in 1990, the landlord suddenly jacked up the rent by $3,000. We realized that we needed a different place. I discovered an ad for a restaurant which was for sale in Edison. However, when I met the owner, he did not take me seriously. He could not believe that someone with as little experience as I had could think of buying the restaurant from someone with over 20 years of experience in the business. He was quite condescending when he told me that that the restaurant would cost $125,000 and added that it was clearly beyond my reach. He was shocked when I wrote him a check for $50,000 on the spot. I told him I would be back in a week with the rest of the money and I wanted the keys to the building at that time. Back at our first restaurant in Jersey City, I told one of our regular customers about my situation – amazingly, he offered to finance the additional $100,000 so I could close the deal. I then went back the next week, closed the deal, and got the keys. We finally had our own 50-seater restaurant in Edison!

What role has your family played in your journey?

To this day, the entire family has been deeply involved in this restaurant business ever since we started – all the way from when we were just catering to when we opened our first restaurant to when we opened our 50-seater in Edison to when we eventually expanded to the 100-seater location we have today! And when I say family, I don’t just mean my immediate relatives. In our company, nobody is considered an employee – everybody is considered family. This is actually what I have enjoyed the most about this business. We work together, eat together and even play together. We celebrate all festivals and family events. I also help them find solutions to their problems – just as one would with one’s family. This approach to company structure and culture has worked wonders for over 40 years. Along the way, I have started hiring abused women and helping them (e.g., training them, helping them get economically independent, pursue higher education). It gives me a lot of personal satisfaction when I am able to help someone solve a problem with which they are struggling. I have even told my manager – if anyone calls asking for help, don’t turn them away. Call them in, give them a meal, and figure out how we can help them. Whether it is a student looking for a job or an elderly person looking for support. In this way, our family is constantly growing.

What advice would you give to other newly arrived immigrants in the United States?

As long as you are a disciplined person, you will reach your goals sooner in this country than in any part of the world. There are several doors that will open for you, especially if you use education as a way to seek out new opportunities. That doesn’t mean it will all be smooth sailing – there will of course be challenges. But it is important to not give up and face them with confidence, guts, and tenacity!


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