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RASA: Meet Sahil Rahman

By Luke Fichter

In celebration of AAPI Heritage Month, we sat down with Sahil Rahman, co-founder of RASA, to learn more about the story behind his popular fast-casual Indian restaurant. Sahil, alongside his childhood friend Rahul Vinod, founded RASA to bridge cultural gaps and bring the rich flavors of Indian cuisine to a broader audience. With roots deeply intertwined through their fathers' entrepreneurial ventures in the restaurant industry, Sahil and Rahul grew up witnessing the transformative power of food and community.

Can you tell us a bit about your background and how RASA came to be?

I founded RASA along with my friend and business partner, Rahul Vinod. Our journey began with our fathers, who were long-time friends and immigrants from India. They partnered to start their own restaurant in DC in 1991, just a year after Rahul and I were born. Growing up around Bombay Bistro and Indique, we saw firsthand the rich traditions and the hard work that went into sharing our culture through food. We realized there was a gap in how our peers understood and experienced Indian cuisine. From an early age, we were inspired to change that perception. RASA means taste and flavor in Sanskrit, the root language that Hindi is derived from. It also happens to be the combo of our names, Rahul and Sahil!

Who or what inspired you to enter the restaurant industry?

My father. Rahul and I grew up in the restaurant industry and witnessed the way that food impacted our community and spread joy. We also noticed that misconceptions about Indian food changed as soon as friends tried it under our guidance. This led us to draft a business plan in high school, which even won a competition. The dream persisted through our college and early professional years, and eventually, the pull to make it a reality became undeniable. We left our jobs, traveled across India to deepen our culinary knowledge, and laid the groundwork for RASA.

You've mentioned witnessing the transformative power of food from a young age. Could you share a specific memory where you saw food bring people together in a meaningful way?

Food has a unique ability to bring people together. There's nothing like the magic of a shared meal, and while it's hard to pull one specific memory, the moments and conversations we have over meals are the ones that define our lives. Growing up working at the family restaurants, it was beautiful to witness those moments from a young age, and it's been a real joy to see how food continues to create community and connection.

You’ve aimed to make Indian cuisine more accessible. What strategies have you implemented at RASA to make Indian cuisine appealing to a broader audience?

We have been very conscious about our design, branding, and storytelling to ensure that the spaces we have put together feel welcoming and accessible for our guests. We talk a lot about accessibility and authenticity, and we have made many decisions such as the way we name dishes, the set bowls we've curated, and the way we show up online to make sure we are a space that feels accessible to all. RASA literally means 'essence' in Sanskrit, and that’s what we strive to offer— the essence of our childhood flavors, the essence of our family's traditions, and the essence of Indian culinary diversity, all in a modern, accessible setting. It’s a celebration of where we come from and where we are now, bridging two generations of culinary expertise with contemporary dining preferences.

How did you go about developing a menu that stays true to your roots while also appealing to those unfamiliar with Indian cuisine?

We are both Indian and American. We were born here, but our families immigrated from India. As such, we have developed a menu that is authentic to our roots as Indian Americans, with traditional ingredients and modern flavors and regionally conscious ingredients here to build a brand that is true and authentic to who and where we are.

What were some of the biggest challenges you’ve faced as an entrepreneur? Do you hope to influence other entrepreneurs who are looking to get their start?

How much time do you have? Jokes aside, entrepreneurship is an amazing journey, and a true rollercoaster. Having the courage to take the leap, and from there, having the mental fortitude to stay balanced amidst the ups and downs is absolutely critical. For us, scaling our brand as we navigated the pandemic and the myriad challenges that ensued was a big challenge for us. That has made us much stronger along the way.

We have been so fortunate to benefit from the guidance and kindness of so many, and I take a great deal of pride in supporting other entrepreneurs along the way.

Any exciting plans on the horizon for RASA?

Our guests are active and looking for healthy lifestyle options that are easy and convenient, so we've recently rolled out a new lineup of wraps that conveniently deliver the delicious flavors of Indian food. There's more exciting plans that we're getting ready to announce soon – so stay tuned!