In the 1990s, Sarjeet Cheema left the Punjab region of India with a dream. An accomplished chef, he arrived in New Jersey hoping to eventually open his own restaurant featuring the authentic cuisine of his homeland. He spent four long years working alone until he was finally able to bring his wife, Kamaljit, and their two children to live in the United States.
The family moved to the San Francisco Bay Area in 1997 and to Roseville in 2000. Finally, in 2002, Sarjeet and Kamaljit opened their first restaurant — a modest Roseville establishment called Shalimar Indian Cuisine. As it turned out, the small eatery was a big hit. They quickly developed a following of customers who came back repeatedly for the likes of butter chicken, sag paneer, mixed vegetables and lentil dishes.
“We had a lot of regular customers who didn’t live in the immediate area,” said Sarjeet’s son, Rami, also known as Ray. “There were a lot of people from the Grass Valley and Nevada City area who would come in while they were shopping in Roseville. They kept telling us we should open a restaurant in Grass Valley.”
After hearing this suggestion many times, Ray began doing market research and consequently scouted out potential restaurant spaces in Grass Valley. The site of the former Carlos’ Fish Grotto on Freeman Lane fit the criteria.
In 2004, the Cheema family opened the doors of India Oven with Ray, his wife, Anju, and sister, Sharan, taking on responsibilities of the business along with Sarjeet and Kamaljit.
Today, the Cheema family owns and runs three India Oven restaurants and a 2,300-square-foot banquet hall. Their initial restaurant, Shalimar Indian Cuisine, has since been sold and — in addition to Grass Valley – has been replaced with an India Oven in Natomas and a third in Citrus Heights, which shares a building with their White Lotus Banquet Hall. The hall seats 1,000 and caters to large parties and corporate events. The family oversees a staff of 15, all of whom travel between the businesses as needed.
“So many people told us that going into the restaurant business was risky in this economy,” said Ray. “But I believe the quality of the food and the customer service has been the secret to our success.”
Over the years, Sarjeet has made it very clear to his team of chefs that they are never to deviate from his tried-and-true recipes.
As is traditional in India, three generations of Cheemas live in one house in Roseville. With Ray, Sharan and Anju now playing prominent roles in the businesses, Sarjeet and Kamaljit have been able to step back, help out when needed and spend more time looking after their grandchildren, ages 7, 5 and 3.
While the family’s success has been tremendously rewarding, Anju said it sprang from the support and friendship they initially received from their Grass Valley customers. In fact, several recently attended Sharan’s wedding. Today, the demands of managing the expanding businesses have required the Cheemas to spend more time in the Sacramento area, Ray said.
“I miss spending more time in Grass Valley — our customers always make us feel like we are one big family,” said Anju. “We all know about each other’s lives. When I waited tables here regularly, Ray’s father would have to call me back into the kitchen to tell me it’s time to stop talking.”
To contact Staff Writer Cory Fisher, email her at Cory@theunion.com or call 530-477-4203.