Editor's note: What's it like to be a vendor at Brooklyn's popular—and competitive—outdoor market Smorgasburg? For the next few weeks we'll be turning our attention to Bombay Sandwich Co.
A sophomore stand peddling homespun, vegetarian Indian fare, Bombay Sandwich Co. was born out of love and frustration. Founded by Shikha Jain, a native of Delhi, and Shiv Puri, who grew up in Parsippany, New Jersey, the mom-and-pop business was inspired by their mutual love for the sandwich that it is named for. But frustration was no less essential. The team has taken both of these impulses to build a successful stand at Smorgasburg with their own following.
A lifelong vegetarian, Shikah found healthy and tasty quick-service vegetarian fare hard to come by after moving to New York. This helped inspire their decision to take matters into their own hands, which they did by launching Bombay Sandwich Co. in the spring of 2012. Their ambition is no less than changing the landscape of takeout dining in New York, and they've found success by staying true to themselves. Their food is decidedly personal, and not limited by a strict interpretation of what defines Indian cuisine.
After experimenting with the possibility of opening a Neapolitan pizzeria in Delhi, Shiv and Shikah returned to New York to consider their options. The Bombay sandwich, a popular street food in Mumbai made with potatoes spiced with dried mango powder, tomatoes, ginger, green chili and lime that Shikha grew up eating, was an obvious choice. She recalled how friends would come to her house just to eat her mother's homemade version. At Smorgasburg, they make it just as they would on the streets of Mumbai, individually squeezed between a handheld sandwich press.
Building their concept around the dish, matching local ingredients with Indian spices, they started applying to popular streets markets with their sights set on eventually opening up a cafe. In May of 2012, they launched Bombay Sandwich Co. at Hester Nights, where they sold out out every week, before being contacted by Smorgasburg the following month. A spot opened up, and they never looked back. This year they've introduced new items, like their lentils with kale and walnut pesto, and fine tuned their message.
"We want it to be something that is authentic to ourselves, something that only we can do as where we're from and where we're at. We're not trying to be another Indian restaurant in the city," Shiv said. As such, the business is rooted in tradition—the bombay sandwich they sell is made from Shikha's family recipe—but not limited by it. Shikha added, "I'd like to believe that our name does send out a message that it's going to be kind of fusion food."
There are dishes like the quinoa-chickpea sandwich, chutneys made of kiwi and strawberry and pear, and watermelon pickled with Indian spices. This willingness to experiment with ingredients outside the canon comes from Shiv's mother, who moved here from a Punjabi farming community 35 years ago and has been vital to the development of their menu. "That comes from my mom. She wasn't trying to be different, it was just facing the reality of, 'this is what I have, let's see what I can do with it,'" he added.
One thing that distinguishes Bombay Sandwich Co. from many of their fellow vendors—though there is a camp of similarly-minded stands they can be grouped in with—is their emphasis on health. Whereas others are selling milkshakes made with pies or Dinosaur-sized turkey legs, Bombay Sandwich Co.'s offerings are informed by the Vedic tradition, a philosophy of eating rooted in Brahmin culture. Accordingly, they've received, they say, a lot of love from fellow vendors for whom the market is a weekly gutbomb and are just looking for something healthy to eat.
Fellow vendors aren't the only ones coming, though. Vegetarians and vegans have flocked to the stand, and Shiv has been inspired by the reaction from the Indian community. Since day one, Shiv tells me, the response has been tremendous. They'll be appearing on Kelsey's Essentials this season, started catering through Cater2Me last fall, and are moving full steam ahead with their brick-and-mortar plans.
About the author: Chris Crowley is the author of the Bronx Eats and Anatomy of A Smorgasburg Pop Up columns. Follow him on Twitter, if you'd like. In person, your best bet is the window seat at Neerob, or waiting in line at the Lechonera La Piranha trailer.