After several years of serving traditional and modern takes on Indian cuisine at their original BYOB across the bridge in (dry) Collingswood, NJ, Rakesh and Heather Ramola brought a second location of Indeblue — with a full bar — to 13th Street. They celebrated their first anniversary here in Philly last month, so Eater Philly paid them a visit (GM Tobi Moser sat down with us, too) to see how things are going so far.
It turns out there are some major differences between the two locations, despite sitting not eight miles apart. We also found out that the Ramolas have plans for an eventual reno to their second floor in Midtown Village — and have their sights on a third, "more casual" restaurant here in Philly in the future.
Eater Philly: So it's been a year here, but you've been open in Collingswood for five years. Did you always want to come over to Philly?
Heather Ramola (co-owner): Yeah, we've always wanted to come to Philly, because it's a lot more affordable to get a liquor license. And we knew that it would be nice to open up in this area — it's such a vibrant neighborhood and street.
Oh, so you always had your eye on this neighborhood specifically?
Heather: Oh yeah. Well, we were looking probably for a year, looking for the perfect spot. But we had been all over, we had been to Rittenhouse, to Market Street… we saw a lot of properties. A few others near here, too.
Could you elaborate a little on the difference between doing business here versus in Collingswood, where BYOB is the only option?
Heather: Well, obviously having a liquor license is a huge advantage. For this neighborhood, I think it's a must. Happy hour, which we do seven days a week, draws a nice crowd. But we do have our customers who really like to bring their own liquor, and those customers still go to Collingswood. So people have their preferences as far as BYO or not BYO. But it gave us a chance to be really creative with our cocktails and beer and wine lists.
Tobi Moser (general manager): We try to use all of the spices from the kitchen in our cocktails, with things like homemade simple syrups. We have cardamom, ginger, and mango on there. We do a wine pairing with our chef's tasting as well, and it's a totally different kind of cuisine than I was used to before I started here, so matching wines with that is kind of challenging.
[Photo: Robert Allan Design]
Do you get people who visit both restaurants, since they're so close?
Heather: We do. A lot of the people in South Jersey work over here, so we'll see some of them at lunchtime, or happy hour before they head home, since we're right next to PATCO. And we've seen a lot of Philadelphia people that come here and then say they want to try it over in Collingswood. And they are different — Collingswood has a nice patio, and here there's liquor of course. And we also have different menus, so people like to try both.
So there was an obvious upside to coming to Philadelphia, but were there any challenges, or things you planned to do that you couldn't make happen here?
Heather: What was really challenging was the permit process just to get started here. I was the one that spearheaded that, because I had done it in Collingswood — and I thought it was a little difficult in Collingswood, but that was a piece of cake compared to here. So that was a huge challenge. We didn't have a contractor that we really knew and trusted and had a history with, so that was also a challenge. We went through a couple of contractors. I would say that was mostly the challenge — getting the process up and running. As far as the liquor license goes, I had a liquor lawyer that was recommended to me, and he made it pretty easy and seamless.
Did you have any hopes of having outdoor space here, since you're used to having it in Collingswood?
Heather: I see now that it probably would've been… Well, I mean, it's really a catch-22, because this spot is a great spot. Would I want to give up location for outdoor seating? A lot of restaurants in this neighborhood do have it, but I don't know if I could have gotten something like that in this area. And ultimately, I think we do belong here and we're all happy to be here. And I got such a great deal on the building!
But we do have some thoughts: I can't give you an exact date when, but what we're going to try to do is the second level. To have windows going all the way across, and to have that be open as a dining room and also for catering. It's not exactly sitting on the street, but to have some element of the outdoors. In the future, that's what we'd like to do.
But we're also, eventually, looking at another location in Philadelphia. So, that's a ways off, but we are working with a real estate agent now to look and see what's available.
But at this point you're just starting to look at spaces?
Rakesh Ramola (chef and co-owner): We're not rushing.
Heather: Yeah, no rushing. It'll be down the road. But we do have our feelers out. So yeah, I do think outdoor seating would've been great here, but we do have some plans.
Are you looking into another location because there are things you can't do in this location, or you're just ready to grow?
Heather: We just have another thing — we have something in our mind that we want to do.
Oh, so a whole new concept?
Heather: Yeah, not completely different, but it'll be a more casual kind of… well, we don't have all that ironed out yet.
[Photo: Robert Allan Design]
I'd like to talk about the menu a little bit, since you said there are a lot of differences between the two places. Have you changed the menu much since you've started?
Rakesh: Not too much, though I do try to do it seasonally. Every season I do some fresh things. There are the signature dishes that are more popular, so we keep them around, but we do many things season-wise.
I know the distance is not that great between the two restaurants, but have you found differences in which things are popular here versus at the original location?
Heather: On the menu we have some very traditional, and then some modern. We had to have the traditional things — there are just so many Indians that come here. That's one difference from Collingswood — the Indians that come here are young; they like to have cocktails and to try some of the modern stuff, though they do still like the traditional things. Our Indian clientele in Collingswood tend to be older business owners who come with their kids and their families, so it's different. Here many of them are single, doctors, students.
Does that give you a little more freedom with the menu here?
Rakesh: Yeah, you can be a little more creative over here.
Heather: Hmm, I don't know about that! Over in Collingswood he uses really exotic meats, like kangaroo and bison and alligator. And it's funny, they love it over there. Surprisingly, a lot of people come in specifically asking, "So, what are you going to have on the specials menu?" You'd be surprised how many "foodies" there are who are willing to try some different meats, different exotic fishes, and other things over there in South Jersey. We haven't gone too exotic over here. We've done some different things, but we haven't used alligator or turtle in Philly, like we have over there.
Do you mean you haven't tried it here at all, or that you did try some and it didn't go over as well?
Heather: A little, like we've had bison and quail, and I think we've had shark.
But you don't think more exotic meats would go over well here?
Rakesh: No, it probably will go, but the thing is we already have a very inventive menu. A lot of people want authentic-authentic, and then some people want more modern. You have to be working both the menu sides. You can't just give people whatever you want to give them. Whatever they want, I'm going to try to do to make them happy.
Heather: We're so new here, I think we want to get our menu going and get people used to that before we start throwing things out there that might make some people a little shocked. We will, at some point, probably add some more exotic stuff.
Rakesh: Yeah, we will.
One special at a time.
Heather: Exactly! It's great though, sometimes he'll do some really authentic stuff that even other Indian restaurants here don't have. Sometimes Indians will come in here and say, "Oh my gosh, I haven't had that since my mother used to make it, or since I was last in India." So that's kinda neat.
For people who are not Indian, when they encounter those dishes they've never seen before, do they assume they're fusion or original creations?
Rakesh: Yeah, kind of. I remember some dishes people were surprised by, but no, that's authentic as well.
Heather: Yeah, there are. Here and in Collingswood, there are some people who will say "I eat Indian food all the time, and I know that this is not traditional." And I don't say anything, but I think to myself, you know… they think they know, but they don't know.
There might only be one region of India represented in all of the Indian restaurants nearby, though, and they think if they've eaten all of that, then they must be well-versed.
Rakesh: Yes, and India is such a huge country that every hundred miles, the people change, the language changes, the food, the clothing — everything changes. I'm from India, and still I'm learning it. It's very challenging, because you go to a different city and everything's different completely. What I'm making, the other city is not making the same thing. Or someone else is making something with the same name, even, but it's a different style of cooking. You learn a lot when you travel, and that's why I did so much travelling… before I got married. [Laughs]
Heather: Hopefully people will always taste it. Whatever idea they have about it, they'll just taste it and say, "You know, this is good." It can be good whether you think it's traditional or fusion or whatever.
Rakesh: And as long as it's made with the traditional Indian spices, that counts. Everything I'm using over here, is the same spices that other restaurants are using — I'm not making something different. I just go for freshness, nothing more than that.
[Photo: Robert Allan Design]
Is there anything you're particularly proud of so far, from your first year?
Rakesh: Well a lot of things, but to me it's just so far so good, with things getting better and better. You really learn a lot from previous steps, and always try to improve everything. And to be able to trust in people, in the staff, which is like a family.
Heather: Yes, I'm proud of my staff. A lot of the staff here have been here from the beginning. They're trustworthy; they're all about the restaurant. They take pride in knowing the menu, and in being able to help the customer with suggestions, and they understand what we're going for here. We can count on them. We have servers in Collingswood that work over here, and they all get to know each other and can help each other out at either location.
What do you think engenders that, having a staff that works together so well? Because not every restaurant has that, and I'm sure there's some element of luck to it, but there also must be a lot that you guys put into it to make that happen.
Tobi: Yeah, I've definitely worked in restaurants where no one hangs out after work, or anything like that. I think it's just a nice group of people by chance — I can't really think of one person that doesn't hang out outside of work. We really emphasize teamwork, so even though everyone's in different sections, we're getting each other's drinks and things like that. And I think the out-of-work experience benefits the in-work experience.
Heather: I've seen a lot of restaurants, too, where the chefs are really kind of rude and angry people, but I think our kitchen and our FOH really work together to try to come up with solutions. That's really important, to have a nice cohesion there.
In your first year, have you held any memorable events? Do people have parties here?
Heather: We do. We've had a lot of parties here. We can seat up to a hundred, but because we don't have a party room, it is a buy-out.
Tobi: We had a wedding with like a hundred guests in April. That was the biggest catering we've done in-house, so it was a test of how many people can we hold and how smoothly can it go, and it went awesome.
Heather: That is one reason I think it's so important we get the second floor done, is because of catering. We get so many requests that people want to do parties at the restaurant. And it is a buyout. And knock on wood, but we're doing well here, so it may be difficult for someone to buy the restaurant out on a Friday or Saturday night. We've also done caterings at the hotels here, though. Even if we do remodel the upstairs here, we'd never be able to fit some of the Indian weddings anyway — it'd still be way too many people.
Do you remember your first service?
Heather: I don't remember anything bad happening, I think it went pretty smoothly. We learned a LOT from Collingswood. We went from that tiny restaurant where Zeppoli is now, to across the street, and there were bumps with that because it's about three times larger. I think we were more organized this time; we were able to get it together.
Rakesh: You always keep learning. But then it's all about teamwork.