Shanti owners blaze entrepreneurial path through the pandemic

Solmon and Rokeya Chowdhury: "It was the people in Dorchester that kept Shanti going."

When Solmon and Rokeya Chowdhury opened up Shanti Indian Cuisine on Dorchester Avenue in 2001, they knew they were taking a risk. There weren’t many Indian or South Asian restaurants in the area and they couldn’t be sure if there would be enough support to keep such an eatery afloat.

“It was a struggle at the beginning because not many people wanted to try Indian food, but those few people who did really liked it,” Solmon told the Reporter in a recent interview. “That core of customers was really important to us. It was the people in Dorchester that kept Shanti going.”

Now, twenty years later and staring down a year-long pandemic, that support has remained unwavering, said the Chowdhurys.

After getting his start with Ashmont Realty in the mid-90s, Solmon saw Shanti as a foundation upon which to expand his business model. The success of Shanti on Dot Ave. led to new restaurant locations in Roslindale and Kendall Square, and, eventually, the Dudley Cafe in Roxbury.

Last spring, after refocusing their business model on takeout and delivery, Solmon and Rokeya set out to ensure a safe work environment for their staff, personally ferrying employees to and from the restaurant to avoid taking risks on public transit.

“At the beginning of Covid, we started figuring out how could we go into skeleton cost mode to make sure we could survive,” recounted Rokeya. “With Shanti, we have been more lucky. At Dudley Café, our sales have dropped 80 percent, and the restaurant in Kendall Square is closed off until workers come back. What’s carrying us are the Dorchester and Roslindale locations; our sales have actually been higher in Dorchester compared to pre-pandemic, and we’ve been humbled by the support from the community.”

With Shanti Dorchester providing a firm base, the Chowdhurys have set about using their real estate experience to make an impact elsewhere in the community with a goal of increasing homeownership.

Over the past few years, Shanti Acquisitions – the Chowdhurys’ development LLC –has rebuilt and revitalized more than 250 units of housing while creating jobs and hiring local residents. In 2021, they plan to break ground on projects at 3 Aspinwall Rd. in Codman Square, 36 Temple St. in Mattapan, and Bartlett Place in Roxbury.

The focus on affordable development is part of a strategy to build pathways to economic autonomy for local residents, said the Chowdhurys.

“When we see multiple needs in the community, part of our vision is taking our own needs and then reinvesting in the community in another avenue,” explained Solmon. “An overall, long-term goal of ours is to create generational wealth, and often to do that you have to be a homeowner. In our experience, when you own a home, it’s easier to leverage that to start your own business, get financing, get a student loan. There are all these domino effects...owning a home is how you create the wealth. Plus, when you have homeowners, they care about the neighborhood more and want to support local businesses.”

That mission of wealth creation is poised to branch off into yet another sector for the family: the burgeoning cannabis business. Solmon and Rokeya were recently approved by the Boston Cannabis Board for a license for the first cannabis dispensary in Nubian Square, a venture they are naming “Rooted in Roxbury.”

“We were discussing how these dispensaries are coming to our neighborhood, and it’s usually big corporations that are eying those spots, and what is the community benefit to that? We figured we have business experience, why not apply for a license? How can we do this better?

A locally owned dispensary that could help provide access and opportunities for Roxbury and Dorchester residents to get in on the ground floor would be more constructive than an entity owned by a regional or national company, they reasoned. The community support came: More than 40 investment partners who are Roxbury and Dorchester residents have already invested a range of sums, depending on what they could afford.

“Neighborhoods like us would not have access if people don’t have a lot of funds to put down,” explained Solmon. “Here, we’re creating the platform where someone who has $2,000 to invest has an opportunity to be a part of it at the entry level—usually the minimum investment is much, much higher. A lot of people who have invested, this is their first experience investing in something...We had a few women put money together to have one half share.”

The group of investors is 96 percent Black, over 50 percent are women, and they are all Boston residents, reflecting a Black and brown ownership team.

With so many local residents in on the ground floor, the Chowdhurys hope to continue in that vein by hiring local employees and delivering the greatest impact to those “in the immediate radius” of the site. Having already secured a community host agreement and city approval, they are now waiting on zoning approval and aiming to open up shop by the end of the year.

“I think we got so much support because we’re a community-conscious business,” said Solmon, “not someone from outside coming in to profit and then leave.

“And it goes in line with the city’s new regulation to make sure equity candidates also get a say in this business as well...it’s empowering for a lot of people to be able to say, ‘Yes, I have invested in a cannabis business, in an emerging market.’ Everyone is very excited about it.”

To learn more about the dispensary, visit rootedinroxbury.com.