General Articles
All in the Family / by Jean Saylor Doppenberg / September, 2017

Twenty-one years ago, Gurcharan Singh Chandi left Punjab in his native India for America, searching for a more prosperous life. He lived in New York for a short time before accepting a job offer at a restaurant in Walnut Creek. He worked long hours at Sargam Indian Cuisine, starting as a dishwasher, advancing to waiter and eventually becoming the manager. By 2000, he had saved enough to bring his wife and four children from India to join him. Gurcharan continued to manage the restaurant while the family settled into their new surroundings. The eldest son, Bhupinder Singh Chandi (known as “Sonu”), was just shy of his 16th birthday when he arrived from India. “I learned English from taking ESL classes, and also learned the language on the job while working with my dad at the restaurant,” he says.

In 2003, Gurcharan partnered with several others to open his own restaurant in Walnut Creek, Saroor Indian Cuisine, and his children helped him run the place, which the family owned for a few years. “That’s where we got our early experience in opening and operating a restaurant,” says Sonu.

Then in 2007, an opportunity to buy a Mountain Mike’s Pizza in Rohnert Park put the Chandi family on the fast track to additional restaurant acquisitions. “That was more of a coincidence than anything,” explains Sonu. “It came up for sale, and the price was within our budget. Buying it wasn’t intentionally planned. It just sort of happened naturally.”

A family affair

Ten years later, Sonu Chandi is founder and president of Santa Rosa-based Chandi Hospitality Group. His brother Joti, 30, is chief operating officer and a senior vice president in the company. Their younger brother Sunny, 28, is senior vice president, and Sonu’s wife Ren, 32, is executive vice president. (The brothers’ sister, Parminder, went into the nursing profession.) They now operate four restaurants in downtown Santa Rosa, along with 10 Mountain Mike’s Pizzas in the North Bay.

Each family member handles a specific segment of the company. “We’re still learning and trying to get better at using our skills in the right areas,” says Sonu. “But in general, Joti has spent much of his time on the operations of Mountain Mike’s, while Sunny oversees hiring and operations in the downtown restaurants. Ren works on setting up new projects. We all take on a marketing role and coordinate those efforts. So far we have been capable of pulling it all together ourselves, but we’d like to set up specialization in finance and in marketing. We’d like to see those roles filled by others in the future.”

Sonu, who turns 32 in October, didn’t want to be in the restaurant business, initially. He attended San Francisco State and finished his degree at Sonoma State University. “Studying corporate finance did not prepare me so much for restaurant management, but the perspective was to understand business.”

He went to school two days a week and worked several part-time jobs during most of his college years. “I started as a courtesy clerk for Albertson’s, then advanced to bookkeeper. I was also a shift leader for Jack In The Box, and sold appliances at Sears for a few years.”

The patriarch and co-founder of the company, Gurcharan Chandi, didn’t begin his working life in the restaurant industry, his son explains. “In Punjab, Dad was more about doing whatever it took to make a living,” says Sonu. “He worked on his father’s farm, and he operated a dispensary in his village. It’s common there for people to run dispensaries. They’re not officially doctors, but they dispense medicine much like a doctor. Now Dad is enjoying retirement and playing the investor role in our company. He’s not active on the management side, but he still loves to come by and check things out.”

Restaurant development

Sonu’s office is upstairs at one of the company’s downtown Santa Rosa restaurants, Bibi’s Burger Bar, site of the former Flipside Burgers and Wings. It’s one of two properties downtown that were transferred to Chandi Hospitality Group from Nino Rabbaa, who owned restaurants in Sonoma County for several years. Last year, Flipside became Bibi’s, and this summer Rabbaa’s former Rendez Vous Bistro on Fourth Street facing the reunified Old Courthouse Square reopened as Beer Baron Bar & Kitchen, the latest addition to the Chandi portfolio.

Stout Brothers Irish Pub & Restaurant on Fourth Street was the Chandi family’s first acquisition in downtown Santa Rosa in 2013, followed by the opening of BIBI’S. “Bibi means grandmother in my language, and so it’s named after my grandmother. She was vegetarian, but chefs didn’t do justice to provide enough vegetarian options when we opened. Our goal is to expand exciting vegetarian options in the future. We focus on veggie burgers and creative menu items using veggies. We have a tiki burger made with Indian chutney, and people seem to like it because it’s satisfying without being meat. BIBI’S has a hip atmosphere, too.”

The County Bench on Fourth Street opened a few months after Bibi’s, in May 2016, in the former Caffe Portofino site. The Chandi family had planned to call it Craft 535 Kitchen and Bar, until they learned another restaurant held a trademark on the name. “County Bench is doing well,” says Sonu. “A high-end restaurant takes a little longer to establish and has taken more resources to be successful than we anticipated, but overall it’s been a good learning experience.”

Their newest downtown eatery, Beer Baron, is a partnership with East Bay restaurateur Harpreet Singh Judge, who owns Beer Barons in Livermore and Pleasanton. The restaurant features a couple dozen craft beers on tap, along with elevated pub food such as chicken and waffles, panninis, and an assortment of small plates.

Sonu envisions opening an Indian restaurant, as well, but not necessarily in downtown Santa Rosa. “I hope to do that in the near future, but we might want to take a break from downtown.”

Investing in downtown

In the early days, the company was known as Chandi Restaurant Group. “We updated it to Hospitality Group because we have our sights set on other things,” Sonu explains. “We are in hospitality and development. We don’t just buy restaurants. We develop them and want to continue that and see where it takes us. Time will tell. So far our focus has been on downtown Santa Rosa because we believe it’s under-utilized.”

That type of support for downtown Santa Rosa is exactly what Jonathan Coe likes to see. “Sonu and his family are on the leading edge of investing in downtown,” says the president and chief executive officer of the Santa Rosa Metro Chamber. “With Stout Brothers, County Bench and Bibi’s, and also by reopening the old Rendez Vous as Beer Baron, they are raising the whole downtown experience. These restaurants represent major attractions for what I hope is a revitalized downtown.”

The Chandi family is growing and developing a restaurant group with a variety of products that are all high quality, Coe adds. “They’re making investments in areas where investment needs to take place, so that downtown becomes a focal point for our community. Their entrepreneurial approach is important to that success, and we at the chamber applaud it.”

Coe welcomed the Beer Baron opening, in particular, this summer. “With its location right on the new reunified square, guests at the outdoor seats have the scope of that space laid out right before them.”

Sonu, says Coe, is deeply involved as a cheerleader for downtown Santa Rosa. He’s in his second year of a three-year term on the chamber’s board of directors, a graduate of Leadership Santa Rosa, and also a member of the Downtown Action Organization (DAO). “That’s a new group of downtown businesses, formed earlier this year,  promoting the reunified square to ensure that downtown remains a viable and attractive place,” he says.

For Sonu, the reunified square presents many new opportunities. “I’m on the chamber board and also on the DAO to make sure that success happens downtown,” he says. “I’m spending time with many business owners to create the right type of activities for the square. Several well-attended events have already taken place, and the Wednesday Night Market has been popular this summer.”

But plenty more events could happen there, he adds. “Downtown is not flourishing as much as we’d like, and we suffered quite a bit during the construction of the new square. That was a tough year, and tough for downtown businesses in general. But I’m an optimist.”

Entrepreneurial savvy

Exchange Bank has been involved with Chandi Hospitality Group’s financing for several years, explains Steve Herron, senior vice president and manager of the bank’s commercial banking group. “They are a great example of people who know their business. Sonu Chandi was one of the early investors on the reunified square and so he is taking some risk, but he’s optimistic and committed. Sonu spends a great deal of time promoting downtown to get it on a faster trajectory to increase tourism, while also bringing more locals downtown.”

As a young entrepreneur, Sonu is a role model, inspiring other young entrepreneurs in this community, says Herron. “He has a lot of energy and vision, and he’s wise for his age. It’s encouraging for our bank, because we don’t see as many businesses in the area with young entrepreneurs as we would like. Sonu has a thirst for learning and for promoting optimism in the business community. I mentioned this once to his parents at a recent dinner in his honor, and told them they had done a great job raising all of their children to be such community-minded professionals.”

In late June, only days before the opening of the company’s newest Mountain Mike’s, Sonu was a busy man on the run. “I’m just now arriving at our new site [at the corner of Montgomery Drive and Mission Boulevard], because we’ve been in a time crunch to get it open, from the hiring and planning all the final details to the employee training.” (Old Mexico Restaurant & Bar, which occupied the space for decades, closed in the spring of 2016.)

All the Chandi family’s Mountain Mike’s locations, Sonu says, are doing well. “Those restaurants have been our core business, and they give us the opportunity to experiment with other ideas.” The Chandis own eight Mountain Mike’s and act as franchisor of two others.

Higher education

Sonu’s education in corporate finance has paid off for Chandi Hospitality Group. “We work on a restaurant as if it’s like any other business. We look at our successes and improvements right from the get-go. It helps me to keep that perspective at the top of my mind. Besides, we know how to invest and grow. But one of the most difficult aspects about this business can be employee retention.”

It could be a simple clash of cultures, he says. “My family comes from an ethic of working almost too much, while the culture here is that, for some people, work isn’t a priority. We have some great employees, but there are also some who ask for a lot of time off. That bugs me a little bit.” The company has more than 350 employees between its 14 restaurants.

Higher education is paramount to Sonu, and he has a particular soft spot for 10,000 Degrees, which raises money to fund programs that help send low-income students to college. Last year the Chandi family started Bibi’s Education Fund primarily to assist that organization’s efforts. (See Giving Back on page XX.)

“When I first met Sonu in 2015, I asked if he would participate in an upcoming career day that 10,000 Degrees was hosting for our Sonoma County students,” says Lisa Carreño, regional director for 10,000 Degrees. “Sonu completely matches the profile and the spirit of the students that 10,000 Degrees serves in our community. He came from a background where the road to college was not gilded and he’d had to make his own way. So I asked if he would come speak to our students. After hearing only a short description about us, he said, ‘I’ll be there.’”

The theme of that particular career day, says Carreño, also spotlighted entrepreneurism. “It wasn’t only to help students on their path to college but to see themselves as innovators and entrepreneurs, through their capacity to learn and their own passions for whatever it is they want to do. Sonu came to that career day and told his story about being a first-generation college student and an entrepreneur.”

Shortly after, Sonu joined the Sonoma County advisory board of 10,000 Degrees. Earlier this year, he co-chaired the organization’s “One Amazing Night” gala, which raised more than $700,000 to fund programs and resources for its students. “Sonu truly leads with his heart, and humility and modesty are part of his core values,” says Carreño. “He listens carefully, and if he wants to get involved with supporting your event, his offer to help comes within a minute or two."

Community builders

Carreño describes the Chandi family as being passionate about helping to build community. “From my perspective, they place a priority on access to quality education and higher education. They are very close to each other and to their parents, which serves as a generational bridge, and they are genuinely interested in being in the center of community building.”

Exchange Bank’s Herron says Sonu Chandi is a humble man with a genuine belief in giving back. “He wants to be involved in the community in more substantial ways than just making a profit.”