Chandi family to open third downtown Santa Rosa restaurant
While the Chandi family’s rise to prominence in the Santa Rosa community may look meteoric from the outside, it has in fact been a 20 year-long journey.
It is a classic tale of a family migrating to the U.S., working hard, sticking together and building a successful business.
The Chandis currently own five Mountain Mike’s Pizza outlets around Sonoma County, and three restaurants within blocks of each other in downtown Santa Rosa.
“Doing whatever it takes, together as a family, has done it for us. We keep ourselves busy. We don’t understand (the concept of) vacations,” said Sonu Chandi, president and CEO of Chandi Restaurant Group, which includes his brothers Joti and Sunny and his wife, Ren.
Chandi is a soft-spoken, focused, 36-year old, the eldest of four children. He has many stories - but not much time to tell them - of the family’s journey into the restaurant business that began 20 years ago, when they moved from India to the U.S. to find a better way of life. He wasn’t quite 16 years old and had never before traveled outside of the state of Punjab.
In the beginning, learning English was just one of the hurdles they faced.
Chandi’s father, who ran a dispensary in Punjab, acquired a job in an Indian Restaurant in Walnut Creek. He started as a dishwasher and worked his way up to manager. Chandi worked in the restaurant as well, helping out with whatever needed to be done.
“They were a very tough couple of years. There were a lot of challenges,” said Chandi, a 2015 winner of the Business Journal’s Forty Under 40 award honoring outstanding young professionals.
“We learned on the go, at school and at work to communicate basic things.”
From humble beginnings in the U.S., the Chandi brothers have all attended Sonoma State University. Their sister, Parminder, is a nurse.
Chandi also attended San Francisco State University where he studied corporate finances and services. While going to school full time, he also held a full time job and two part time jobs. He calls it “keeping yourself busy.”
“There is not a day in my life when I get up and say ‘I don’t feel like going to work today,’” Chandi said. “We pay a lot of attention to details so we can continue to get better and grow and be a great part of our community. America has given us so much, it’s really important to go the farthest we can.”
The Chandis got their work ethic from their father and grandfather. Their father pushed them to continue their education because he didn’t have opportunity to go to college.
“I have been first in my family to go to college and finish college and my wife and brothers have gone to college as well. My family culture is that ‘work hard in life and things will fall in place’ which has worked for us. But the fact that I have had an education has helped me grow in bigger leaps. Just hard work doesn’t cut it these days,” he said.
Chandi knew he wanted to go into business, but not necessarily the restaurant business. He had plans for himself to become a banker, when another opportunity presented itself.
Eight years ago, a friend told him about Mountain Mike’s Pizza franchise, and the family purchased an outlet in Rohnert Park with money they had saved and equity in Chandi’s house.
“The strategy is figuring out how to spend the least amount of money possible,” he said.
Compared to what he foresaw in banking, however, owning a restaurant is long hours and hard work. Chandi works seven days a week. He and Ren have a 3-year old son and a year-old daughter.
“Owning this many restaurants means that there is always something that I didn’t get to in my day, so I wake up middle of the night sometimes to prepare notes for my next day so I don’t miss anything. I’m a very hard worker and put a lot into it so we can continue to move forward,” he said.
They purchased the second and third Mountain Mike’s in 2009, the fourth a year later, the fifth in 2012, and a sixth in 2013. They sold one last year to raise cash for another restaurant purchase.
With established credit and credibility, the financing is now easier to work out, Chandi said. “When you reach a certain level, there is more flexibility.”
Gathering steam, the company purchased Stout Brothers Pub on Fourth Street in 2013 and last November purchased Flipside Bar & Burger, now named Bibi’s Burger Bar, on Third Street. Last year, they also bought Caffe Portofino, next to Stout Brothers. The last two restaurants will have opened within six months of each other.
Caffe Portofino is currently undergoing renovation and the planned opening is in May under the name Craft 535 Kitchen + Bar. The Chandi Restaurants Group also master leases the Craft 535 building with six tenants.
“It’s a big leap for us to do so much at the same time. I’m a big risk taker, but a careful risk taker. It can go sideways very easily, especially in the restaurant business,” he said.
Chandi says the stress level is still huge and the family is still learning the ropes. Emotions can run high, but they look at the business in the long term and how they can do it better.
Bibi’s Burger Bar is named after Chandi’s grandmother.
“We dedicated the name to her so it will always remind us of her, she was all about family so it would be good to implement in a restaurant environment,” he said.
With Bibi’s burger bar and Craft 535 Kitchen + Bar, Chandi is looking forward to supporting more small businesses, specifically, local suppliers.
“Mountain Mike’s Pizza has been great, but being a franchise we have limitations on certain decisions. Our local brands give us a huge opportunity to work many local suppliers to create direct local impact,” he said.
Chandi is also forming Bibi’s Education Fund at Community Foundation Sonoma County and is committed to raising $5,000 the first year to fund scholarships at 10,000 Degrees Sonoma County, where he is also a board member.
With three restaurants with in blocks of each other, Chandi has a huge investment in downtown Santa Rosa and feels strongly that it has great potential for growth. His profile in the community extends to his membership on the boards of the Santa Rosa Chamber of Commerce and the Harvest Fair.
Chandi said he’s a big supporter of the reunification of Old Courthouse Square, a project which will eliminate a section of Mendocino Avenue and aims to create an urban park and gathering place in the middle of downtown. The will ultimately prove to be good for downtown he said.
“The chamber is doing things to make (downtown) successful. There should be more happening and more to do here. The reunification plan is to bring more people in to Santa Rosa.”