Story of Kalpana Waikar

Kalpana Waikar is the owner of Inspired Indian Cooking, a business that sells small spice kits to make it easier to cook their favorite Indian dishes at home. The kits range from homecooked favorites like Kheema to restaurant favorites like Butter Chicken. She opened her storefront near the Dempster CTA stop in 2021.  

Kalpana One (By Yiming Fu.png

KALPANA WAIKAR — On Evanston’s robust community and confidently building a business

 

Kalpana Waikar is the owner of Inspired Indian Cooking, a business that sells small spice kits to make it easier to cook their favorite Indian dishes at home. The kits range from homecooked favorites like Kheema to restaurant favorites like Butter Chicken. She opened her storefront near the Dempster CTA stop in 2021.  

 

Kalpana’s parents moved to the United States in the early 1960s from India to pursue higher education. While they initially thought they would return to India, they ended up staying to offer more opportunities for their children. 

 

Growing up in Cincinnati, Ohio, Kalpana first came to Evanston to attend The Kellogg School of Business and get her MBA, and she moved to Evanston with her family in 2005. 

 

YIMING: Why did you choose to settle in Evanston?

 

KALPANA: We were very confident in what we wanted in terms of where we wanted to settle down. Evanston really checked all those boxes. It’s near a big city, but not in a big city. The school systems are great, having access to the lake, the shopping, the mix of individual, unique businesses coupled with chain businesses, of course the university, and just the general feeling that we got. We met so many people and made so many friends so quickly and they still are really good friends today, so we knew we made the right decision. And I knew that if I ever started a business, it would be in Evanston. 

 

YIMING: Tell me more about that “general feeling” that you got? What about the town made you feel welcome?

 

KALPANA: It’s hard to explain, but the best way I can explain it is —  having grown up in Cincinnati, Ohio, a very conservative city, in the 70’s, I was one of only two to three people of color in my high school. It was like 98% white. I was the only Indian person in my class and just always felt kind of different. I had friends, but my mom wore a sari and my parents had thick accents and they didn’t really fit in with the parent community. 

 

I knew there was more out there, but I just wasn’t sure what it was. And really, my eyes opened when we moved to California, and I lived in Los Angeles and San Francisco. And I realized that I had basically grown up in a bubble, and not really a good bubble. And when we were older and married and thinking of starting a family, it was just really important to my husband and I to live in a place that reflects the world.

 

And we really felt, when we got here, that this is not a cookie-cutter neighborhood. There’s a lot of diversity in terms of socioeconomic status, cultural and other things. And that’s not to say Evanston is without its challenges or issues, it definitely is, but overall it’s just been such a welcoming community and we just immediately felt at home. We didn’t feel like we were different, or that we stood out, or that we were outside of the norm. We really felt very much a part of the town and the community from the very beginning. 

 

YIMING: What about Evanston made you feel so comfortable?

 

KALPANA: I think if I had to sum it up in one sentence, it was that we felt both unique but also just like everybody else. And that was okay. 

 

YIMING: What does that mean to you?

 

KALPANA: When I say different, I mean that we bring elements to the community that are new and different. For example, we’re different just by virtue of being of Indian descent and having a strong affiliation with our Indian culture that our parents taught us as we were growing up. But, we also grew up in Ohio alongside people who are very American and very midwestern. So we feel like the Indian background is something that’s different, although there a lot of people of Indian descent in Evanston now, but also the same, like we don’t feel like we’re an oddity or something that is like “look at that Indian family.” We just feel very much a part of the fabric of the community. 

 

YIMING: Awesome. I’m also curious about your business. How did you get your business going?

 

KALPANA: I started my business in 2019. It started as a subscription box — every month, my subscribers would get a box with pre-measured spices for a curated Indian meal that I would create. I started with my personal network, I put it on my personal Facebook page. And within 24 hours, I had 50 subscribers, and there were people that I was not necessarily Facebook friends with, so it was all word of mouth. And then, very quickly,  the number grew to the hundreds with no paid marketing. 

 

YIMING: Kalpana’s business grew so much, she realized she couldn’t scale the subscription model up. She took a break in 2020, and then after the pandemic, started making individual spice kits instead of a monthly subscription pack. 

 

When we opened in December, it was a soft launch. I just put it on Facebook and made very limited inventory. And it was insane. So the first 10 days after we opened, we sold out 6 times of every product and we sold more than 2,000 spice kits in 10 days and we shipped to 33 states, including Alaska, Florida, Arkansas. I have no idea how any of these people found out about the business or that I was open or anything like that, but it was insane. 

 

YIMING: How does that feel?

 

KALPANA: It was surprising. I mean, I knew that I had a good product. I knew having an MBA and having that finance background, I knew from a business standpoint it was a very viable business. But I really didn’t know how people would respond. And that was a little welcome surprise. 

 

When I first started the subscription box, one of the things that I heard over and over again that I hadn’t necessarily anticipated is “I had no idea that I would ever be able to make this dish,” or “I’ve tried to make this dish so many times and it never came out the way I wanted it,” or “we make it a family event  — every month we get the box and the entire family cooks for two hours and we sit down and its a shared experience.” So like any product, you’re not just selling the component, you’re selling the experience. And so I realized that’s the experience. That’s what I was really offering, they were responding to the idea that they’re achieving something that they didn’t think was possible. And so that’s been my focus and that’s my driving inspiration as well as how do I educate people about Indian culture through the cuisine, and how do I also empower and enable people to have these cooking experiences that just feel so amazing and that they can share with their family and friends. 

 

YIMING: What do you feel watching the rise of anti-Asian hate across the country?

 

KALPANA: We personally haven’t had anything directed at us as a family, but we have of course seen things that are happening in the news and to other people. THe way it’s affected us, we made a decision, like a joke to my son the year before when he was applying to colleges, that there’s only a few states where you’re allowed to apply to. I feared for him because he had a beard and thick hair and I’m like people could assume that you’re something you’re not, and that really scared me. So for me, I was mostly just worried about my son. 

 

Other than that, I think that I always knew it was there. But it’s easy to not focus on it, if it’s not something you directly experience. Seeing it come out in the open was the confirmation, but there was also a lot of dread, not necessarily for me or my husband, mostly for my kids, because they’re the ones who are out in the world more. 

 

YIMING: Do you personally feel safe in Evanston?

 

KALPANA: I do. I do feel very safe in Evanston. I do also take a lot of precautions, even just in the store there’s cameras everywhere and alarms, so I guess because I did that I know there’s a risk no matter what. But I do feel pretty safe walking around and just going about my general business. That being said, I don’t go out at night much and I don’t go far from home or areas that are more populated or that I’m familiar with. 

 

YIMING: What do you think about the TEAACH Act? 

 

KALPANA: I think it’s amazing, and I think it speaks to the state of Illinois and the people. I think one of the best ways to connect with people and to reduce hate and racism is through education, especially at a young age. When I grew up in Cincinnati, it was a very white education. When I think about what I learned in school, it’s like 1% of the true history of the United States, it’s really not indicative of what reality is. For example, I didn’t even know about the Tulsa Massacre until a few years ago. And when I found out about it, I was like “how is it possible that I didn’t learn about this in school?”

 

In contrast, my high school in Cincinnati, Ohio is making national news because they cancelled diversity day at the high school because they felt that it was leaving children out because the children who are not part of the “diversity” would feel like they weren’t part of the day. That was actually part of the rationale. Then after that, they passed the CARES Act, which means that nothing that can make any student uncomfortable can be discussed in school. So that includes discussion about race, gender, seual orientation, basically anything cannot be discussed in school. 

 

It’s just a really stark contrast to what we’re seeing in Illinois, and it’s really reassuring to see that we’re not going down this path here. 

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