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Side of Ranch

Indian culture, kindness are key ingredients at Tandoor restaurant

Poonam Maini considers all the patrons at Tandoor Fine Indian Cuisine in University Town Center to be her extended family.

Chef Swaran Singh (center) cuts the ribbon during the grand opening of Tandoor Fine Indian Cuisine. Owners Poonam Maini and Shubi Maini are on the left.
Chef Swaran Singh (center) cuts the ribbon during the grand opening of Tandoor Fine Indian Cuisine. Owners Poonam Maini and Shubi Maini are on the left.
Photo by Jay Heater
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It was supposed to be a simple story on the opening of a restaurant.

But with family restaurants, nothing is ever that simple.

I guess that is why we love them.

Sure, we get a certain simple pleasure out of eating a Taco Bell bean burrito, and we always depend on Ruth's Chris Steak House to deliver us a nice filet mignon. We know what we are going to get at a chain.

What we don't know is what is behind the food, and to be frank, we don't really care.

That's why we prefer to see family restaurants serve our neighborhoods. We get to know the owners, and their stories. Food tastes better when you know the person serving it.

Milan Maini (left) and Shamini Maini (right) supported their mom Poonam Maini (center) through tough times until their mom emerged with a successful restaurant.
Photo by Jay Heater

Which brings us to Tandoor Fine Indian Cuisine that held its grand opening Feb. 20 at its new location at 8447 Cooper Creek Blvd., in University Town Center.

The owner is Poonam Maini who will win you over with her heart of gold before she ever tempts your tongue with her Tikka Masala.

Maini's story is not a pretty one, at least not part of it. But it is an American story.

A native of the town Garhdiwaia, in the state of Punjab, in India, Maini grew up in a culture where sometimes you didn't always have a say in picking things, such as a husband.

Upon moving to the U.S., Maini said was living a life in her new country as an abused wife.

She admits, if she still lived in India, she might never have left her husband, but as an American, she choose divorce. However, she said she walked away with nothing, except her three children.

In other words, she hit the jackpot.

With the encouragement of her kids, she opened a 40-seat restaurant in 2001 at Beneva Road and Clark Road.

Tushar Patil, the sous chef at Tandoor Fine Indian Cuisine, was busy preparing the food for the guests on opening night.
Photo by Jay Heater

She not only want to share good food with everyone who walked through the door — she calls every customer her extended family — she also wanted to share her culture.

That created a slight problem for her son, Shubi, who is now Tandoor's co-owner and general manager.

"Culture is extremely important to her," Shubi Maini said. "But growing up, I had a single mom and she was working so much. She was not able to share too much culture with me."

Now 25, Shubi Maini absorbs everything he can about their Indian culture, and shares the love of the Indian artwork that adorns the walls in Tandoor.

In many ways, you could say Shubi Maini, who was born and raised in Sarasota and who is the youngest of Poonam's three children, has absorbed the Poonam Maini culture.

"She is very spiritual," he said. "She prays for the success of all our employees. And she is one of the kindest people you will know. She is loving in every respect … a heart of gold."

Poonam Maini has made a pact with her children — Shubi and his older sisters Milan Maini and Shamini Maini — that they will give at least 10% of their income to the nonprofit she formed, Share Care Global. Poonam Maini said last year, the nonprofit provided meals for 18,690 people and it also has an entrepreneurial program aimed at teaching women skills they can use to get better jobs in the future.

"It will be 100% passed down," Shubi Maini promised.

After Poonam's initial restaurant endeavor, she moved to a 90-seat restaurant on Cooper Creek Boulevard, only a few doors down from her new site, which has 150 seats. She operated that restaurant for 11 years.

The new restaurant is 1,000 square feet larger at 4,000 square feet.

The former Tandoor had a smallish kitchen, which was too cramped for the four to five kitchen workers at one time. Her client base was growing and she felt she might lose customers if she didn't enlarge the kitchen space. Now she was seven to nine employees in the kitchen at a time.

Opening the new restaurant was not without complications. All the construction woes and supply chain problems that everyone was experiencing lengthened build out to 18 months. She said Benderson Development's Mark Chait, her landlord, nursed her through difficult times.

"He listened to me cry a lot," she said of Chait.

Ordering kitchen tools that weren't quite right and experiencing other construction woes cost her more than $100,000, she estimates.

But she finally got it done.

Owner Poonam Maini thanks her guests for attending the grand opening of Tandoor Fine Indian Cuisine.
Photo by Jay Heater

Celebrating with her kids, her employees and her customers on Feb, 20, her tears at the grand opening were joyous ones.

"Every Monday we have a meeting (of employees)," she said. "Our goal is to make sure every customer is a guest in our home. Guest is god."

She had yet to mention food.

"Our good is not a hot spicy," she said. "It is a flavorible spicy."

Although her dad, Tarsem Lal Maini, was a passionate cook during her childhood, Poonam Maini said she never has particularly enjoyed cooking. Her dad died in 2011, but she said he helps her along the way.

"He is my guardian angel," she said.

In the kitchen, she said her chef, Swaran Singh, takes care of taste.

"He is the backbone of everything," she said of the chef she was known for more than 30 years.

She then takes care of the experience.

"The root of Indian culture is to be kind," she said. "If you have one piece of bread, you share that. You share your blessings.

"All I ask in return is that you help somebody."



Jay Heater

Jay Heater is the managing editor of the East County Observer. Overall, he has been in the business more than 41 years, 26 spent at the Contra Costa Times in the San Francisco Bay area as a sportswriter covering college football and basketball, boxing and horse racing.

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