Through fairness and progressive thinking, the upbringing of Chelsea’s aRoqa Contemporary Indian Cuisine set the precedent for how perseverance and zeal can achieve goals in the city where dreams are made: New York City.
Monica Saxena opened aRoqa in 2017 following an atypical career path that enabled her to have a distinct expertise, which has been crucial to the longevity of her current business. She moved to the United States from India roughly 35 years ago after finishing her undergraduate degree, and a year of law school before the university shut down. She took numerous jobs with tech startups, working on semiconductors and moving between New York, Los Angeles, and London. When she noticed the Chelsea neighborhood lacked an Indian restaurant suitable to take someone on a date, she began cooking up a plan for progression.
“I wanted to try different things, with Indian food, that had not been done before. All I ever saw was one curry house after another and frankly it was embarrassing,” Saxena said. “You could order one curry and an appetizer, and it gets old. That was the driver behind wanting to open an Indian restaurant that was not a curry house.”
She and an initial operating partner scouted out a location for 3 months before they were satisfied and hired a Korean architect to remodel it entirely. Saxena and her partner stopped seeing eye-to-eye when her partner wanted to take the restaurant towards the catering industry, believing it wouldn’t succeed as a conventional eatery. “I was invested though, I decided to take over as the operator,” Saxena said. “In 2018, I took over the restaurant and spent 16 hours a day for about six months understanding how to work a restaurant.”
That understanding meshed with her background in the technology industry to create and implement tried and true managerial techniques with high standards and equality at the forefront. Saxena cross-trained her staff, teaching them how to work in all positions so that if issues arose in an individual department, any employee could offer a helping hand. This method of creating a “flat organization” allowed Saxena’s core value of teamwork to thrive in times when it was most needed.
During Covid, that cross-training ended up being more valuable than ever. It enabled the aRoqa team to seamlessly substitute for each other without needing additional training. Saxena didn’t take that for granted and did her best to supply them with everything they needed to keep them going strong during a low point in the community. “The minute I got my PPP (Payroll Protection Program), I brought them all back in and said, ‘this money has come for you guys,’” Saxena noted. “I was the first one to have dividers and mask mandates, I got my whole team vaccinated. I had somebody come in and vaccinate all of them for the first two shots.” Along with hiring somebody to come to the restaurant with the vaccine, Saxena paid some of her employees out of pocket when enough revenue wasn’t coming in because she knew she had to have their backs.
Covid helped Saxena build her confidence in aRoqa, knowing that surviving the pandemic would mean that it could survive anything. The esteemed sense of camaraderie, along with her consideration for others is what Saxena credits her success to. Her empathy for her workers, suppliers, and guests keeps the feedback coming, and everyone in the aRoqa family happy.
For the meal itself, presentation is always a factor, as the first experience customers have with the food is what they can see. Saxena said that being true to the cuisine is how she keeps her standards met. Those standards allowed aRoqa to become Michelin-recognized in 2021, a prestigious honor for any organization, but especially impressive with how young the business is.
The namesake comes from the term “roka,” a traditional Indian event where families gather and celebrate the newfound engagement of a couple over a meal. The meals are inspired by the Mughal culture, and the ambience is set to spark that feeling of celebration and festivities for customers. “It’s the team and the cooks that are cooking and serving the guests. These are the people who are the true aRoqa, not Monica, Monica is a dreamer who wanted to set an example that Indian restaurants can operate in a dignified fashion that treats staff well,” Saxena said. That dream became a reality from the passion and effort put forth by Saxena, serving as an inspiration for all dreamers that anything is possible.
To learn more about aRoqa, visit their website.