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An ER Nurse Opened a Curry Up Now Franchise Right Before Covid-19: 'I Couldn't Abandon Either Responsibility. That's Not My Ethics.'

Pritesh Benjamin hadn't planned to spend much time in the kitchen, but when business dropped 70 percent overnight, he rolled up his sleeves and got to cooking.

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This story appears in the June 2021 issue of Entrepreneur. Subscribe »

Pritesh Benjamin may have entered the restaurant business, but he had no interest in working in the kitchen. He was an ER nurse looking for a way to create easy additional income, and he thought he’d found the perfect opportunity by becoming a franchisee of the fast-growing Indian street-food chain Curry Up Now. He opened his doors in Hoboken, N.J., in February 2020…and we all know what happened shortly after. When the pandemic began, Benjamin was suddenly juggling a short-staffed kitchen, safety concerns, cautious consumers, and his own hospital shifts. Every expectation he had was upended — but, he says, he was grateful to have the support he needed, and the experience taught him many valuable lessons about running a business.

Courtesy of Pritesh Benjamin

You originally saw this business as a simple investment opportunity that wouldn’t require your constant presence at the restaurant. But that’s not what happened.

I wanted to get a staff in place, sit back, and watch over the entire business. This isn’t my industry — I work at a hospital — ­and I thought I could just oversee the operation, the analytical part, and the marketing. But 12 days after we opened our doors in 2020, lockdown happened. I couldn’t afford a general manager with a high salary at that point. So I rolled up my sleeves, put on a Curry Up Now T-shirt, and got cooking.

Related: 7 Things Restaurant Entrepreneurs Must Do to Survive and Thrive During the Great Pandemic Depression

That must have been quite a shock.

We had our grand opening weeks before, and we did great — the restaurant was packed, the line was out the door, people were calling in to ask for reservations, and I had to explain that we’re not that kind of restaurant; we don’t take reservations! And then overnight, business dropped 70 percent, and I had 21 people on payroll. We gave people who wanted to work as many hours as we could; others weren’t comfortable working.

How were you managing the restaurant while working as an ER nurse in a pandemic?

I have no idea how I managed it. It was exhausting. I would do two days at the ER and then five at the restaurant. I couldn’t abandon either responsibility — that’s not my ethics.

Image Credit: Courtesy of Pritesh Benjamin

Were you worried about juggling those roles, in terms of safety?

Medical professionals’ brains are programmed to prioritize safety, and we have the resources to stay safe. If anything, my team at the restaurant was able to ask an expert how to stay safe throughout the pandemic, and they took my advice and input very seriously.

Related: The New Dining Write-off: Covid Relief Gives You Something to Whet Your Appetite

As we’ve moved through the pandemic, when did you start to see business pick back up?

I’m still waiting for that moment. I’m doing better this spring than I was last year, but I’m not breaking even yet. The struggle is still there, though we’ve had very strong support from our franchisor. Curry Up Now is a young, emerging brand, so there’s a lot of attention on you as a franchisee.

What’s the most helpful piece of guidance you’ve received from your franchisor?

He told me recently, “Almost anyone can run a successful restaurant. But you need to be a genius to run a struggling restaurant.” He has been in this business for 10 years, and he has seen that what you envision and anticipate can change in a single hour. You must be prepared for anything. If you prepped $300 worth of food for the night based on last week’s sales and all of a sudden you have $900 worth of business come in, how do you make sure you’re ready to meet that demand? It’s about always being prepared with a strategy and flexibility.

Stephanie Schomer

Written By

Entrepreneur Staff

Stephanie Schomer is Entrepreneur magazine's deputy editor. She previously worked at Entertainment WeeklyArchitectural Digest and Fast Company. Follow her on Twitter @stephschomer.