From Punjab to Richmond

August 3, 2011

By Colleen Hayes

Two masters degrees by age 19. Three successful restaurants by 31. For Sandeep “Sunny” Baweja, 31, this was always the life he envisioned for himself.

Baweja is the operating partner for Lehja, an Indian restaurant located off Broad Street in the Short Pump Town Center. Open for a little over a year, Lehja has quickly become an area destination for Indian fine dining.

“I come here on my lunch break,” said May Cheung, 30, who works at Panda Kitchen and Bath, a remodeling store on Broad Street. “The food is great but the service is good too.”

 

Click podcast audio.mp3
to listen to an Indian restaurant owner discuss her experience
owning and operating multiple restaurants in the Richmond area.

The combination of quality food and top service has allowed Lehja to gain recognition in just the short time it’s been open. Richmond Magazine awarded Lehja with the runner-up “To Dine For” Signature Dish award and the top prize for the “To Diet For” Dessert Dish Award. The persistence for “customer satisfaction over business success” is the driving force behind all of Lehja’s success, according to Baweja.

LEHJA-for-blog.jpg

Lehja in Short Pump is fast becoming a local dining destination.

Fondness for Food

Hailing from Punjab, a province in northwest India, Baweja always had a passion for food.

“The province is known for farming and food, so that is where my love for it came from,” he said. “I slowly discovered I am passionate about not only eating, but going out and trying different places, even when I was pretty young.”

After receiving a master’s degree in business, along with a history degree, at age 19 from the University of the Punjab, Baweja went to work as a public relations manager for a Busch Gardens-type theme park called Wonderland. His work ethic quickly made an impact, as he was promoted to general manager after six months.

“When I joined the park they pulled 500 people a day,” he said. “When I left we were getting 3,000 people a day. We changed it because of my love for food industry. We tried to make a destination so people would come to the park for food too.”

See a photo and audio slideshow about the Indian restaurant Lehja.

Making it in America

After finding success in his home country, Bajewa decided to make the move to the United States in 2004. With family nearby and a job as general manager of a Hampton Roads restaurant, Nawab, Bajewa soon made a comfortable life for himself. He helped with the public relations aspect of the entire company, including opening up Azitra in Raleigh, N.C., another Indian restaurant.

After living in Williamsburg for about six years, he decided to take his company to Richmond and open up Lehja, what he refers to as the “top-tier” restaurant out of the three he has worked for.

“This was all of our dreams, this restaurant,” he said. “It was what we really wanted to do, in our own city. We thought this restaurant should be a mixture of modern and traditional, not fusion.”

While Lehja prides itself on its unique taste on traditional Indian cuisine, the food is not the only element that stands out. Walking in to the restaurant, anyone could soon forget they were in a Richmond shopping center, but rather a chic New York eatery.

“We want to give you a big city feel in your own city,” Baweja said. “You wont even feel this is an Indian restaurant until you open the menu.”

With such traditional fare offered, many patrons could feel intimidated by the menu. Items such as Aam-Anardana ka Gosht (lamb morsels sautéed with pomegranate seeds, mango and scallions with spices) require a well-trained staff to help guide beginners.

“Different people have different food habits,” Partap Singh, a waiter, said. “Some are allergic and in those situations it’s not that hard but it can be difficult sometimes to recommend dishes.”

Baweja appreciates the authenticity his staff brings to the restaurant, especially celebrated Indian chef Mel Oza and chef de cosine Preet Sugh.

“We are lucky to have Mel Oza work with us because he is a nationally recognized Indian chef. He has restaurants in Virginia, North Carolina and California as well.”

With Oza managing the bigger picture, Sugh is left to handle the day-to-day cooking and has impressed Baweja with his immense skill-set at just the young age of 25.

“He did some of his studies in Bombay and has been working with us over here for a few years,” Baweja said. “Our executive chef especially picked him for this project.”

Sugh attributes his efforts to the goal he and most of his co-workers share: making it in America.

“He loves it,” Sugh said through Baweja’s translations. “Being in this kind of a place you could say is his dream.”

Work in Progress

While most of the first year has gone smoothly for Baweja and his staff, the man behind Lehja still has lingering concerns.

“The time we opened the restaurant was a risky time, the economy is still not that favorable,” he said. “We thought it wasn’t going to be as fun as it would’ve been four or five years ago, but we wanted to go ahead with the plan.”

Baweja was right to have economic concerns, but he also faced stiff competition from surrounding establishments. According to the National Restaurant Association, there are 1,180 restaurants in the Richmond area alone.

These numbers won’t slow down Baweja and his staff any time soon. He hopes to expand his Indian restaurant into a franchise when the time, and the economy, allows. But for now the married father of one is content with providing his guests with a memorable experience of what he calls his “passion profession.”