Mom’s home cooking was inspiration for Indian restaurant
By Jack West
With the global pandemic continuing to require Alabamians to forgo sit-down restaurants in favor of takeout, one Auburn restaurant is continuing to give people good energy and even better food, one bowl of rice at a time.
First started as a food truck on Auburn University’s campus, Good Karma is a local Indian restaurant that has always focused more on takeout food than a dine-in experience.
That focus, coupled with good food and empathetic business practices, has helped Good Karma retain a customer base in a college town that, at least for the last few months, has been diminished.
Sunny Merchant, founder and president of Good Karma, started the business nearly a year ago as a recent college graduate. His parents also own a food truck in Auburn, but that was the extent of experience he’d had with the restaurant business.
“I took exactly zero business classes in college,” Merchant says. “I know I’ve made a lot of mistakes in a lot of areas of the business, operations-wise. I didn’t know how to talk to certain people, or I didn’t know what a good price was for certain things.”
Merchant said that while starting the business often seemed overwhelming, having parents in the food service industry certainly helped.
“It’s definitely one of the most exciting and most stressful things I’ve done in my life so far,” Merchant says. “There is so much to get done, so many moving parts. It was a very overwhelming experience, and I’ve very thankful that I had my parents to help guide me and encourage me on the days that I was a little bit too overwhelmed.”
Merchant, who has lived in Auburn since he was in fourth grade, said that his mother’s home-cooking was the inspiration for Good Karma.
“I remember eating this food at home, and I remember taking it to some of my friends in school when my mom would make a little extra,” he says. “Just to see them try my mom’s cooking for the first time and how much they enjoyed it, I wanted people to be able to experience that.”
The restaurant mainly serves rice bowls and naan wraps with either chicken, lamb, paneer or a daily vegan option like chickpeas or potatoes. Those are then topped with an array of sauce choices like tikka masala or curry. And finally, every dish can be made either “regular,” “spicy,” “extra spicy” or “burn off my tastebuds.”
That last option, by the way, may seem like a joke, but it is also a promise.
With options like lamb and curry, one of the biggest questions surrounding Good Karma’s success is whether it has come despite the lack of Indian food in the modern Alabamian diet, or because of it. Plenty of kids growing up in Alabama go to Mexican restaurants for chips and salsa or Chinese restaurants for chow mein and orange chicken, but Indian food has never really been a part of the Southern palette.
Merchant said he wanted to create more diverse dining options.
“A lot of people don’t really venture too much out of Auburn or Alabama or the United States, and so they don’t always have the opportunity to try something that they’ve never even seen or heard of before,” he says. “In a word, pluralism. It’s the idea that we as people should be able to experience a wide variety of experiences. It would be a shame for people to have the opportunity to try something new and just never do it.”
Trying something new, according to Merchant, is a great way to get people talking to each other and invested in the community around them.
Generating positive energy
“I wanted to do something to bring people together, and I know that good food makes coming together as people very easy,” he says. “My thought has always been that if I can bring together enough people with good food, it might as well be food that they’ve never tried before.
“Our name is Good Karma, and we really want to live up to our name. We really want to put out as much positive energy as we can.”
In practice, that takes the form of a small corkboard covered with pins in front of the register in the restaurant. A sign next to it cheerfully designates the corkboard as a community board. The idea is that anyone can walk into the restaurant, pull a pin off the board, hand it to the person behind the register and receive a rice bowl and a drink for free. No questions asked.
“It’s basically for anyone who is hungry and who doesn’t want to, or can’t afford to, pay for their food,” Merchant says. “It’s for people who are down on their luck as well as people who have forgotten their wallets at home and anyone in between.”
Others can choose to sponsor a pin and, in a sense, get some good karma of their own. For $10, anyone can add another pin to the corkboard and ensure that someone else gets a free meal.
Like other business owners, Merchant is rethinking how he interacts with his customers — his family — because of the uncertainty about when social distancing restrictions may end and what fall will look like on Auburn’s campus.
“Luckily, our business model was designed as more of takeout model already,” Merchant says. “It did hurt us to close our dining room. We ended up missing out on a lot of customer interactions which is one of my favorite parts about the restaurant.
“We are looking at different events around town, everything from student housing complexes to family neighborhoods to different businesses. We would take the truck out to those places and still do our best to serve the community.”
1409 S. College St., Suite 118 Auburn, AL
Hours: 11 a.m.-9 p.m., Monday-Saturday; closed Sunday