Mike and Jyoti Bhatnagar are not typical neighborhood takeout restaurant owners. They have decades of experience and enough stories to keep customers satisfied even before their food is ready.
Primarily a catering company initially, Peppers opened as Monsoon Kitchens in Kentlands Downtown two years ago. The Bhatnagars added the name Peppers to the marquee when they increased their takeout, delivery and limited seating business seven months ago.
However, this is not Peppers’ first incarnation, and the Bhatnagars are not new to the restaurant and catering business. Mike has worked in the food, beverage and service industry for 40 years, and both he and Jyoti are experienced chefs.
Mike attended the Institute of Hotel and Catering Management in India before moving to the United States in 1974. He earned certificates in food and beverage management from Cornell University and food production at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y. Though he had an understanding with his employer, the Indian prime minister, that he would return home in one year, Mike became an American citizen and did not live in India again for decades.
From 1974 – 1981 he worked for Embassy Suites, Holiday Inn, Sheraton and Hilton, as executive chef, food and beverage director, general manager and, finally, regional manager. He then worked for ARAMARK, a food services company, running the cafeterias and food needs of major defense contractors.
He opened his own restaurant, the original Peppers, in Los Angeles, Calif., which he soon expanded to include a nightclub. This led to additional California locations in Manhattan Beach and Hollywood.
Returning to India to care for his ill father in 1994, Mike met Jyoti, the daughter of a family friend and business partner in a restaurant venture there.
“I was so taken by all his stories,” said Jyoti.
After Mike’s father passed away and he and Jyoti had married, they returned to America. Running their restaurants in India had become increasingly difficult due to the corruption and bribery in the local government, said Mike.
He returned to ADAMARK in 1999, working at sites in Pennsylvania and Chicago before becoming the food and beverage coordinator for Grand Oaks in Washington, D.C. Jyoti started Monsoon Catering at night in 2006. As their children got older and Mike’s downtown commute became more of a hassle, the Bhatnagars decided to concentrate on their catering business.
Today, Peppers’ takeout side is mostly fueled by locals, but the Bhatnagars said many of their catering customers are in Washington, D.C., and Northern Virginia.
“It’s mostly because of word-of-mouth,” said Mike.
The Bhatnagars said they aim to appeal as a homey, family business. Indeed, a sense of homeyness prevails in the restaurant, from the cabinets and shelves displaying family china to the quiet presence of Mike and Jyoti’s son and daughter, who attend Rachel Carson Elementary School, diligently doing homework in the corner.
“This place is a dream come true for me,” Jyoti said. “It’s my kitchen.”
The couple’s passion for cooking drives them to teach others as well. Mike teaches weekly cooking classes at Lakelands Park Middle School once a week and plans to soon offer classes at Peppers itself.
The Bhatnagars attribute much of Peppers’ success to their Kentlands neighbors. “The nearby businesses … recommend us to all their customers,” said Jyoti. “The owner of Crepes-A-Go-Go actually brought us food when they ordered takeout once. That was the first time in my life [anyone did that]! It’s really a blessing to have neighbors like that.”
Mike keeps friends and customers endlessly entertained with stories from his past — he has worked for prime ministers in India and Europe, cooked for and served U.S. presidents and even Pope John Paul II. His favorite person to work for, he said, was “Jackie O.”
Still, he and his family also have many plans for the future. They hope to get into more corporate catering, which they said is more profitable, more reliable and less stressful than working with smaller businesses and individuals. They also plan to resume serving breakfast and lunch at Peppers once the weather warms up a bit and more people are out and about earlier in the day. And while their second floor space definitely has its upsides, the Bhatnagars are considering a move to a street-level spot in the future.
“We have been thinking about the former Marble Slab Creamery space,” Mike said.
They are also seeking new cooks specializing in ethnic cooking, as well as extra hands to help run day-to-day food prep, catering delivery and setup. (“We will pay $8 to $10 per hour and will teach you [everything about the business] you would otherwise need to go to a school for,” Mike said. “Also, we will give you unlimited food!”)
Peppers/Monsoon Kitchens’ catering menu offers a wide selection of food options for every palate, and their takeout/delivery offerings range from Italian to Mexican, American to Indian.
“My dad’s favorite restaurant in New Dehli, India, in the 1970s had no menu at all. The owner cooked whatever you felt like that day. That place today is a chain with 40 or 50 locations. [I learned] from that,” said Mike. “So if we don’t have something on the menu — but we have the ingredients? We’ll make it!”
Peppers/Monsoon Kitchens catering is located at 251 Market Street West, Suite 200. For more information, call 301.977.3855 or visit https://www.facebook.com/PeppersKentlands?fref=ts.