Jish Nath, the owner of Roberto’s in Mercer Island, faced a challenge: keep with tradition in the face of increasing pizza competition, or, as he put it, “venture out.”
His solution is a compromise: split the business, keeping the Italian food and atmosphere in the back for customers who want to see the 41-year-old business stay the same, but adding Indian cuisine to honor his heritage and provide Island diners with something a little different.
The restaurants will be separate, but can “co-mingle,” Nath said. He found ways to combine the two influences, adding six Indian pizzas to his menu. Tandoori chicken pairs nicely with mozzarella cheese, he said.
Redmond’s Can-Am Pizza is pioneering the concept in the area, Nath said.
If the concept catches on in the community, “Mercer Island could be on the map for Indian pizza,” he added.
Nath, who worked in software at Microsoft for the past 17 years, is new to the restaurant business. He said he is “just a foodie, and a good cook.”
“I knew I wanted to do something in the hospitality industry, but I didn’t know exactly what,” he said. “When this came up, I didn’t want to lose the opportunity.”
He said he liked the location and the Italian food business, but didn’t know that the remodel would take so long, or that the pizza space on the Island would become even more crowded.
After the recent opening of Pagliacci, Nash said he could “see the writing on the wall.”
“If pizza dies, it’s hard to sustain the remaining business,” he said. “I added soups and pastas, but it was too late. Even if my shrimp linguine is the best in town, it’s not going to draw the crowd … Mioposto [opening next year] is going to kill the rest of it.”
So, he decided to try something different. He started a small Indian takeout service in the back of Roberto’s, called Dalhousie Square, in October. In recent weeks, the two dining rooms have flipped. Walk in the front and be greeted by twinkle lights and Bollywood music. In the back, there are red and white checkered tablecloths.
The name “Dalhousie Square” was inspired by an actual place. It comes from the old commercial and political center in India during Imperial times, when Calcutta was the country’s capital. Today, there are a large number of food vendors around the busy square, and they’re all unique.
“Within a square yard, you’ll find two completely different types of cuisine,” he said.
Nath acknowledges that splitting the business is a grand experiment, and has given himself only 90 days to see if the concept works.
He said he is passionate about his food, but pragmatic about his business. He confirmed that Roberto’s has been advertised for sale on Craigslist, and has said that rent is too high for any startup business to settle in.
“It’s ‘do or die,’” he said. “But in my mind, there’s no reason we can’t pull this off. Time is against me, but we may be on to something.”
Even if the experiment is unsuccessful, it’s going to be a fun ride while it lasts.
Nath said that he has seen groups of diners ordering off both menus. Families come in, and the kids get cheese pizza while mom and dad try the spicy food, he said. He’s seen couples dining together, one with a glass of wine and lasagna, and the other with shikanji (Island lemonade) and tikki malsala.
Some diners have taken the experiment to another level. Nath said he had one customer ask for butter chicken on top of spaghetti (which is not on the menu).
Roberto’s first opened in 1974 and was sold in 1988, then again in 2015, to Nath. It’s known for its pizza, lasagna and fresh salad dressings, made in house. Nath licensed the original Roberto’s recipes when he bought the business, so not much has changed on the Italian food side.
Nath is venturing out in other ways, besides adding Indian food and pizzas. He will have a happy hour, featuring tandoori sliders, samosas, pakoras (fritters made of chicken, fish or cheese), Indian beer and Italian wine.
He wanted to start delivery services when he bought Roberto’s, and will soon have weekend deliveries, from Thursday through Sunday after 7:30 p.m. He recently partnered with UberEats and DoorDash, and said that Amazon has decided to pilot Dalhousie Square deliveries to Bellevue and Seattle next year.
Mercer Island can be a tricky location, he said, but its advantage is in being situated between two urban centers that don’t have any Indian pizzerias. Traffic on and off the Island may also become an issue, so Nath joked that he’s looking forward to more deliveries via drone.
“There will be curry flying through the sky,” he laughed.
Despite a smaller customer base, Nath said that the Island community has been very supportive. The remodel and training of a brand new staff set him back initially, but he said that he wants his employees to grow with the business, and customers were generally understanding, despite a few bad Yelp reviews.
“People still reached out to me, even when I was burning pizzas,” he said.
His customers aren’t the only ones that like to experiment. Nath said he plans to feature cuisine from different regions in India, including East India, where he is from. His goal is to serve dishes that are delicious, but that not everyone knows about. In an effort to draw customers from off-Island, he said he wants to provide food that his customers can’t get anywhere else.
One popular and unique item he features is a “pumpkin sixer,” a vegan entree with pumpkin, chhole, yams, spinach, carrots, beans and potatoes and served with rice.
“When you think of pumpkin, you think of a pumpkin latte or pumpkin pie,” he said. “This is very seasonal comfort food. It’s a non-dessert. This is the educator in me.”
Of course, the mainstays are there: tandoori chicken, tikki malsala, butter chicken and naan.
“Our butter chicken is the best, the best in the Northwest,” he said.