When Jason Pate was awarded a Coca-Cola Scholars Foundation scholarship in 2005 as a high school senior, he had no idea he would have a future in the food business.

Nearly eight years later, Pate, 25, is co-owner of Tava Indian Kitchen, a local mini-chain of innovative Indian restaurants in the San Francisco area.

Gateway Indian Food

The goal at Tava is to make Indian food more accessible to the American palate. Pate and his business partners looked at the reasons why people don’t eat Indian food frequently — because they think it’s too spicy, heavy, unhealthy or intimidating — and tried to make eating Indian food a much more friendly process for people through a “build your own” concept.

That concept is working. Tava Indian Kitchen opened in March 2012, and a second location followed in November. Armed with passion and funding to support expansion, Pate and his partners are ready for rapid growth around the Bay Area.

Getting into the restaurant business is risky — 80 percent of restaurants that open fail the first year, a fact Pate was well aware of when he left behind a full-time business consulting career in Atlanta to open the restaurant.

“It was difficult to leave my career in consulting to take a chance on this dream. I don’t know if I would have had the confidence to take this leap if it were not for the support of my family and friends,” Pate says. He credits the Coca-Cola Scholars Foundation and his fellow scholars with being a pivotal part of that support.

Building Community

For Pate, Tava is a continuation of his passion for building, growing, and strengthening communities. As a student at Duke University, Pate helped to build community centers and microfinance programs in Kenya and in Ecuador. “I’ve always been amazed with the power of a community — it truly is greater than the sum of the parts,” Pate says.

Even in his career in business consulting, Pate found that community-building played an important role. “One of the only ways to truly be successful in consulting is to build a strong collaborative community around the goal or objective you are trying to accomplish,” Pate explains.

He has found the same to be true with food. “When people think about the communities they are a part of, we want Tava to be on that list. In a world that is increasingly connected online, we want to preserve some of those unique offline moments. Tava is not just a place to get a great meal, it is a place to have meaningful conversations and build relationships.”

Cooking Up a New Concept

Pate realized at an early age that food played a powerful role in strengthening bonds. “For my family — particularly since we were moving all the time — the dinner table was a sacred place. It was the one time of day we could always count on to take pause in our individual lives and spend time focusing on what mattered most, the family,” he says.

“As I think back through all the projects I worked on, a lot of them were started in conversations over food,” he adds. “It’s amazing how food can bring close friends even closer together. It can be the final ingredient that transforms an everyday conversation into something special.”

In 2011, Pate randomly found himself on the same flight as fellow Duke alum and former colleague Vijay Brihmadesam. “We sat next to each other, and over a couple of snacks and glasses of Coca-Cola, started talking about what it was about our careers we enjoyed,” Pate recalls. “Thinking back through our projects, it was the ones we got to see through to fruition that inspired us the most.”  

On that same flight, they also discovered a shared passion for food. “Vijay is Indian, so food has always been an important part of his culture. I grew up with exposure to a wide variety of food. What intrigued us both most was the widespread hesitation towards Indian cuisine,” Pate says. “We wanted to change the way people viewed Indian food and inspire them to enjoy it as much as we did.”

By the time the plane landed that day, Pate and Brihmadesam agreed that if they could get a third colleague, Hasnain Zaidi, on board, they would take a leap into a new venture.

“We didn’t have any names or recipes, just a concept and a lot of passion. We wanted to serve really fresh, flavorful Indian cuisine fast. We wanted to be America’s gateway to Indian food,” Pate says. “Innovation has become a very trendy topic, but rarely do people talk about innovation through the lens of food and beverage.”

It didn’t take long to sell Zaidi on the concept, so the team hit the ground running. “After analyzing all kinds of metrics and demographic information, we decided San Francisco was the place to be because of the community that lived there. It is an entrepreneurial culture where people are willing to try new things,” Pate says.

Although he was committed to finishing a third year with the consulting firm he worked for in Atlanta, Pate took a six-month externship. While his business partners finished their jobs, he headed to the West Coast to start laying the groundwork for Tava. A few months in, his partners joined him and started working on the project full-time.

Creating a Custom Experience

At the restaurant, customers begin by selecting roti (a whole-wheat flatbread that is made in-house), a salad bowl, or a rice bowl. Next they select rice (white or brown), a protein (chicken, lamb, or a vegetarian option), sauce (tikka — a smooth tomato sauce, or daal — a hearty lentil sauce), the level of spice they prefer, and fresh toppings. “Customers pick exactly what they like from start to finish, choosing from ingredients that are fresh and healthy,” Pate explains.

And yes, alongside each meal, Tava Indian Kitchen serves Coca-Cola products.

“As a Coke Scholar, it has been really meaningful to have Coca-Cola be part of the company,” Pate says. “We didn’t choose Coca-Cola solely because they made an investment in me, but rather because we believe in the social impact work they invest in all around the world ... For over 125 years, Coke has built strong communities — through its soft drinks and beverages, but also through its commitment to the greater good,” Pate says. “At Tava Indian Kitchen, we aspire to do the same."