ith three minutes to pitch her business, Nandini Mukherjee did what she knew best: She brought food—her food—to life. Dangerously vivid descriptions of naanini sandwiches and paneer cubes took hold, compelling all 1,500 entrepreneurs, judges and guests in attendance at New York’s Manhattan Center to award her with almost unanimous acceptance of the concept and with the coveted Make Mine a $Million Business honor. Founder and president of the West Village-based Indian Bread Co., Mukherjee represents what award organizers Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton and others describe as “the promise and potential of women entrepreneurs across America.” Call it what you will, though Mukherjee has her own ideas. “This is me taking destiny in my own hands,” she says. “This [place] is my creation.”
What She Won: Make Mine a $Million Business
Make Mine a $Million Business is a program of Count Me In for Women’s Economic Independence and Founding Partner OPEN from American Express®. It is the only national initiative committed to the growth needs of post-start-up, women-owned businesses with less than $1 million in annual revenues.
The annual award honored Nandini Mukherjee and 19 other successful and inspiring business owners with mentoring, money, marketing, business services and technology assistance to turn their million-dollar dreams into reality.
Mukherjee is a fighter. She’s also sophisticated and incredibly sharp, with an overt sense of style, and of what works and what doesn’t. Nurturing when she’s not negotiating, Mukherjee represents all that seems necessary for the profile of a successful entrepreneur in the critical, often unforgiving dining culture of New York City. “I never thought I’d be here, doing what I’m doing, in New York. But of course,” she says, pausing to smile, “I don’t take risks unless I’m absolutely certain they’ll work. And I’m not leaving [this city] anytime soon.”
Mukherjee, 33, is a creator. She came to New York with a plan to study architecture—and instead, she found her instinct leading her to the lighting design program at Parsons. “I never visualized myself just working somewhere—I always saw myself creating something, whether it was through lighting or food,” she explains. Student by day and entrepreneur by night, Mukherjee set her sights on the Indian dining scene. Though options were several and on every street corner, she felt constrained, disappointed, and, at the same time, inspired. “If you wanted to eat Indian food, you either got affordable yet stale curry or wonderfully fresh meals that you’d certainly have to save up for. After awhile, I knew what was missing.” To Mukherjee, the decision to create, to manage and to own a niche of the market was simple—and in this spirit came the idea of Indian Bread Co., a fast-casual café with hassle-free, fresh, flavorful and accessible cuisine.
Giving Indian breads the center stage at a cozy-yet-classy café in the West Village was easier said than done. Long before the thousands of students, tourists and young professionals frequented Mukherjee’s fragrant space on Bleecker Street, she and her co-founder were met with a string of hefty challenges, each testing their dedication to the cause and faith in themselves.
The Bread Co.’s Most Beloved Offerings
Naanini – a grilled Indian panini made of fresh naan bread.
Naanwich – a falafel style fresh naan pocket sandwich.
Stuffed Paratha – stuffed Indian flatbread.
Kathi Rolls – kebab wraps forming a meal to go.
“First, beyond anything, you need to believe in your idea. Believing any less than strongly in your idea, in your business, will not take you far,” Mukherjee advises, recalling when the main investor pulled out of the venture, forcing her to invest her own money into the future of the café. “I believed this would work. And I believed too much in this [place] to sell it to a stranger.”
And more suddenly than she could have expected or wanted, the restaurant that had once been an idea, a subject of conversation between two classmates, was a respectable, respected gourmet institution. Mukherjee found herself in the unenviable position of being overloaded with opportunities, from Republican National Convention parties to major conventions, with little room for error—word had spread in New York, and expectations were high. As an entrepreneur just starting out, she explains, you’ll say yes to everything, and “hope that you can do justice to each and every chance you’re given.”
Nandini’s Rule of 5
The entrepreneur’s five tips for starting a successful business.
1. Stand by your idea—and believe in its potential.
2. Never stop questioning, testing and researching your idea.
3. Ask for help, and leverage your network.
4. Know your resources. And use them.
5. Visualize the future, and know that it’s around the corner.
Obstinate as she is, Mukherjee remained a permanent fixture in the café, and moved from events to the kitchen to the counter until she had turned Indian Bread Co. into a well-oiled machine, ready and willing to win over yet another customer. Asked about what drove her to meet, successfully, every challenge, she responds like a veteran businesswoman: “It’s fun, of course. But when you come to a point where you’re pushed against a wall, where you’re dared to perform, you have to excel. And you have to step out of your boundaries a little.” To Mukherjee, this meant asking for help when it was needed, and doing so as often as was necessary. Growing rolodex still in hand, she advises others to do the same. “Believe in the goodness of others,” she says, “and you might be rejected once, twice or several times, but at least you’ve taken the chance.”
At the end of the day, Mukherjee is an entertainer. She has a business strategy to execute and profits to manage, but she’s not one to sweat the fundamentals. In fact, her eye is on the more intimate, immediate picture: the customer’s reaction to her food. “To see [them] enjoy our creations is all that I could ask for. It’s what keeps me going, and it’s what makes this,” she says, while gesturing proudly around her café, “worth every second and every penny.”
Find Nandini Mukherjee in and around Indian Bread Co. in Manhattan at 194 Bleecker St., Sunday through Thursday (12 p.m-12 a.m.) and Friday through Saturday (12 p.m.–5 a.m.).