A Restaurant That Serves One Side of Social Purposes: The Salt: NPR

Srirupa Dasgupta opened Upohar, a restaurant and catering service with a social vocation. Its employees – mostly refugees – earn double the minimum wage.

Jeff Brady/NPR


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Srirupa Dasgupta opened Upohar, a restaurant and catering service with a social vocation. Its employees – mostly refugees – earn double the minimum wage.

Jeff Brady/NPR

This is part of a series of stories about starting over, profiling people who, by choice or circumstance, have reinvented or transformed themselves.

When Srirupa Dasgupta came to the United States from India to attend college in the mid-1980s, she was determined to work in high technology, not the restaurant industry. But today, she owns a small restaurant and catering business in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and mainly employs refugees who might struggle to find work elsewhere.

After college, Dasgupta rose through the corporate ranks – from software engineer to director at a healthcare company. Around the time the tech bubble burst in the late 1990s, she began to run out and was looking for something different.

“The starting point wasn’t like a Big Bang thing. It was kind of a migration,” says Dasgupta, as she was in the kitchen of her restaurant, Upohar – the Bengali word for “gift”.

The lunch buffet at Upohar in Lancaster, Pennsylvania features a mix of South Asian, African, and Middle Eastern cuisines.

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The lunch buffet at Upohar in Lancaster, Pennsylvania features a mix of South Asian, African, and Middle Eastern cuisines.

Jeff Brady/NPR

After leaving the world of high technology, she started a family and trained as an executive coach, a sort of consultant to business leaders. Then, in 2008, she heard Nobel Peace Prize winner Muhammad Yunus talk about for-profit businesses that also have a social purpose.

“I kept thinking about this concept and was really intrigued. I just couldn’t let it go. … I was possessed,” Dasgupta said.

Helping refugees interested him. She grew up hearing stories of her grandparents fleeing what is now Bangladesh in 1947 – and Lancaster has an active refugee community.

In 2010, Dasgupta opened Upohar as a catering business with a social mission of hiring refugees and others, such as the homeless, who find it difficult to find work. Last April, it expanded and opened a restaurant. Employees are paid double the minimum wage, which is $7.25 an hour in Pennsylvania.

Tulsha Chauwan is the chef at the restaurant. His family fled Bhutan in South Asia, then spent years in a refugee camp in Nepal before the United States granted permission to come here. Her favorite dish to make is eggplant tarkari, a dish that is dear to him because his mother taught him how to make it.

Rachel Bunkete fled the Democratic Republic of Congo in 2008, leaving behind her husband and three children. She is now a senior chef at Upohar in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, a restaurant and catering service that primarily hires refugees.

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Rachel Bunkete fled the Democratic Republic of Congo in 2008, leaving behind her husband and three children. She is now the senior chef at Upohar in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, a restaurant and catering service that primarily hires refugees.

Jeff Brady/NPR

Dasgupta says Chauwan was very shy at first, but now she regularly brings new recipes, hoping her boss will put them on the menu.

Rachel Bunkete is head chef at Upohar and has her own favorite dish to cook: peanut stew. She learned to do this growing up in the Democratic Republic of Congo in Central Africa.

In 2008, she fled political, ethnic and religious conflicts. Bunkete had to leave behind her husband and three children. Eventually, she got permission to come to the United States. There, she was able to reconnect with her family.

“They are not here at the moment. I am alone,” says Bunkete, whose family is in Nigeria and is expected to join her in a few months. She saves money on her job to make it happen.

Upohar has only three regular employees and has yet to make a profit. Dasgupta hopes business will pick up in the new year, and she says, for her, starting over means starting small. But, she said, it’s okay.

“I’m just going to focus on making a difference here,” Dasgupta says, “and if it goes beyond that, that’s wonderful. But if it doesn’t, it will have had an impact [on] my neighbors.”