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Bay Area Power Couples: Dosa's Anjan & Emily Mitra

It's hard to start a business in the Bay Area. And even harder to make it successful. We're inspired by the couples who have done it together and have decided to highlight them every week in our "Bay Area Power Couples" blog series.

When many of us think "Indian food" in this city, we think of Dosa. The restaurant with two very different locales (in the Mission on Valencia and in Lower Pac Heights on Fillmore) has perfected the art of South Indian Dosas from a generation of traditional recipes and has taken the dish to new and modern heights for us San Franciscans to enjoy on the regular. We caught up with Anjan and Emily Mitra to learn how their passion for food, business and one another has turned into a mega successful ode to Indian cuisine and spice-driven cocktails.

When and how did you meet?
We met on a dance floor here in San Francisco, 11 years ago in the wee hours of the morning. We used to be shy about telling people this but now that we own two restaurants and a full scale catering business, we've become proud of the party years that brought us together.

How was Dosa born?
Dosa was born in January, 2003 in Bombay, India (yes, we still call it Bombay) when we were eating dosas late one morning and sipping masala chai.  We looked at one another and said, "You know, someone really should open a South Indian restaurant for foodies like us in San Francisco."  

Being from Bombay and New York, we wanted a restaurant that respected the culinary traditions of Southern India while meeting the urban demands of style, service and fresh ingredients.  We opened Dosa on Valencia just under 3 years later.

What role do each of you play in the Dosa operation?
Emily: I focus predominantly on the hiring, training and development of our employees and on the systems and processes which help drive our daily goals. I also create some of the less traditional items on our menu including seasonal soups and salads and have recently built Dosa's catering business which includes everything from platters and boxed lunches all the way to full service, completely customized catering events.

Anjan: I focus on the development of our seasonal menus, manage the wine list with Todd Smith and work closely with the bartenders on the creation of new cocktails with fresh, spice-driven ingredients. With my background in technology I've also implemented many of our IT systems. I also have the fun job of working with local DJ's to grow our 2,000+ song playlist.

What about the actual Dosa dish do you love so much as to create a restaurant around it?
Dosa really is the food that put Southern India on the culinary map for the rest of the world. There are very few foods where you remember "your first." You can see how dosas are seared as memories into people's minds.  While it seems to be a simple food made from lentil and rice flour, the process to make dosa, including the correct fermentation of the batter, takes 24 hours. The heart-and-soul of the dish is in the dipping soup called sambar (which has 35 ingredients) and fresh chutneys such as coconut and tomato which are blended from scratch every few hours. None of this is simple and all of it helps explain the impact dosa has on people and our love affair with dosa.

Dosa goes much further than dosas to explore all the rich diversity of Southern Indian cuisine.  There are no cooking schools for Southern Indian food. These are culinary traditions that are passed down via family recipes and as many of our recipes represent home-cooking they cannot be found in any other restaurant in the U.S. 

Whose idea was it to open the second, beautiful Dosa space on Fillmore? How do you deal with the stress of owning two restaurants?
It was our shared idea to open a second DOSA, of course. We are young people with a young company so it has always been our plan to grow and expand on ideas that we feel will work.

While we can make the best dosas, we also wanted to be a restaurant that represents many of the regions in Southern India, each with their vibrant culinary traditions. We wanted Dosa to be a place where customers could experience a variety of dishes that they could only experience in people's homes or at the street vendors of Southern India.  We also wanted a full bar driven by fresh, seasonal and spice-driven nectars and a much larger space so that we could host parties and events for people interested in a unique experience.  Dosa on Fillmore was always a dream for us.

How do you handle the stress?

The stress of owning two restaurants must be similar to anyone's stress who owns their own business. You live and breathe your business. We love what we do and we deal with the stresses by finding balance where we can day to day.

Being parents helps the most, as there is always something more important that provides constant perspective. We have a six year old daughter named Eila and a second daughter due next month in October.

What’s the best and worst thing about working with your spouse?

Emily: The best thing about working with Anjan is his perfectionist approach to everything he does and his expectations of flawlessness for everyone around him. This is also the hardest thing about working with Anjan.

Anjan:  Emily provides an important and trusted sounding board when I make business decisions even if we disagree, and we often do :-).  Ultimately the more you scrutinize a process or a decision, the better the end result.  You need to turn off work when you're spending personal time together. Our 6-year old daughter sometimes forbids us to talk about work when we're hanging out as a family.   

What has working with your spouse taught you about yourself?

Emily: That I can be very patient when I need to be and that there is a lot to gain from allowing people to help shape me. It's incredibly hard to partner with someone and to accept their feedback unless you trust them and know they have your best interests in mind.

Anjan: Emily has definitely taught me how be more patient too!  She also eased the transition from the formal world of software and technology to the more casual and spontaneous world of hospitality, which I was certainly ready for.  She is never afraid to take risks and that's essential when you're an enterpreneur.    

Any advice for couples who run a business together, or are planning to?
We would say to do it, be prepared with a plan on how you will work together. Figure out what your strengths and skills are ahead of time and know how you will divide and conquer, so to speak. Plan times where you will meet regularly, in an uninterrupted fashion to discuss your business and to help remain a united front for your employees.

And perhaps most importantly, keep doing things together outside of work and try and live in those two bubbles mentioned earlier-your personal and professional life together.