by Lou Mancinelli and Len Lear
Before Weaver’s Way Coop in West Mt. Airy started to sell the Gupta family’s line of Jyoti Natural Foods in the late ’80s, making it one of the first non-South Asian grocers in the Philadelphia area to do so, the Jyoti food company operated out of the Berwyn family home of its creators and owners, Jyoti and Vijai Gupta.
Earlier this month a Canadian Food Network television crew filmed an episode about the production of Jyoti’s “sambar,” a lentil and vegetable soup, at its Sharon Hill factory, for season two of the show “Food Factory.” The episode will be translated into scores of languages and air in more than 160 countries worldwide.
On January 12, the family behind Jyoti Natural Foods, which are also sold in major stores like Whole Foods and served on major airlines, opened its first restaurant, Jyoti Indian Bistro, at 7220 Germantown Ave. (at West Nippon) in Mt. Airy, which previously housed Avenue Bistro. The restaurant is an entirely different concept from the prepared line of Indian foods developed by the Jyoti company over the past 25 years.
“Mostly because of Weaver’s Way … there was some Jyoti brand identification and brand appreciation already in Mt. Airy,” said co-owner Anuj Gupta, 39, the son of Jyoti’s creators, about the family’s choice to open a restaurant in Mt. Airy. “It seemed like a natural segment of the community to embrace our restaurant concept.” (Anuj is also executive director of Mt. Airy USA, a community development corporation that has helped to improve the commercial vitality of Mt. Airy.)
“I cannot take what we put in our cans and serve it to the public,” Mrs. Gupta said. The recipes are different. The cuisine is fashioned, for the most part, after the northern Indian style of cooking. It represents a step away from the company’s store-purchased products towards full-scale meals.
The menu at Jyoti includes traditional dishes like chicken curry, shrimp cooked in a coconut milk sauce; grilled ground beef with chickpea flour, onion, ginger and spices, etc. There are also many vegan and gluten-free options, and all platters — entree, two vegetable sides, rice, bread and salad — are no more than $8.50! All meals are prepared fresh at the restaurant using all natural ingredients. Some of the prep work, however, is conducted at the company plant in Sharon Hill Township.
That’s where Mr. Gupta designed a 50,000-square-foot facility that the company moved into in 2007. It is three times as big as their previous property, which was close to the newer one and which they had occupied since 1997.
The younger Gupta said that when they first leased the Jyoti Mt. Airy location in early 2012, they discovered it required lots of renovation. “There were many years of disinvestment,” said Anuj, a 1996 Carnegie Mellon University graduate in public policy who also earned a law degree and master’s degree in government from the University of Pennsylvania and was an AmeriCorps/City Year volunteer.
The Jyoti story, however, has been three-decades in the making. The Gupta family moved to the Philadelphia area from Houston in 1981. Jyoti Gupta, 65, was raised in New Delhi, but she moved to the U.S. at age 16 in 1964. Her father was a diplomat. Vijai, 74, went to Canada in 1959 to study for his Ph.D. in chemical engineering at McGill University.
The couple were married in 1967 and moved to Houston when Vijai was hired as an inventor by the Atlantic Richfield Company (ARCO). He also worked for General Motors and DuPont.
Mrs. Gupta had earned her master’s degree in nutrition from Texas Women’s University but “still did not want the kids to be left with babysitters.” So she stayed home with the two children but soon learned there was nowhere to buy Indian food in the area.
She thought that presented a market opportunity, so she eventually conducted her own research about canned Indian foods. Soon (in 1979) she created a company that sold gourmet Indian food by mail. She developed a local client base and advertised in major magazines like Bon Appetit and Gourmet. It was a long process.
But in 1981 when her husband was transferred to Philadelphia, Mrs. Gupta halted her business for three years. She needed the resources of a facility capable of canning her product. When she reentered the market, Mrs. Gupta focused on selling to small retailers and natural food markets.
In the early years the Guptas ran the company from their home in Berwyn, where they were also raising two young children. “At that time, Indian food was not in vogue,” said Mrs. Gupta. “Packaged Indian food was unknown. There was nothing in cans.”
Many of Jyoti’s products are created with the help of inventions by Mr. Gupta, who holds more than 25 patents. (At one time he was also an adviser to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.) One of his inventions, a “bean de-stoner” that takes foreign objects out of beans, has also been licensed by Hormel Foods and is used in all of their plants. But the Jyoti menu and atmosphere is the result of years of experimentation and refining of a cooking process perfected by Mrs. Gupta.
Anuj previously worked in municipal government in both Philadelphia and New York, and he was chosen as a finalist for the White House Fellows program. He humbly attributes his success to “being raised by my parents to be independent and having mentors throughout my academic career that encouraged me to pursue my passions.”
Jyoti, which does mostly a takeout business, is open seven days a week, opening at noon. For more information, call 215-242-5139 or visit jyotibistro.com
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