Small Business Spotlight: Cilantro Indian Café

From its humble beginnings serving food in a small gas station to becoming an award-winning restaurant situated in Cary’s MacGregor Village, Cilantro Indian Café has come a long way in the last decade. 

“We had no intention of starting an Indian food restaurant,” said co-owner Tabassum Rahman, who runs the eatery with her husband, Mustafa Ansari. “Initially we just shared our own meals we ate at the gas station. The aroma of our lunches and dinners led to questions, then we shared our food and people asked for seconds, thirds and insisted on paying.”

In 2014, the couple took a leap of faith and opened a spacious, two-level café. Guests relished the opportunity to sit down and enjoy the steaming hot plates of food that emerged from the kitchen. 

Cilantro continued to thrive. It was not uncommon to see a line of people that extended nearly out the door each day at lunchtime. 

But then came 2020. 

When COVID-19 restrictions struck, Ansari and Rahman made the agonizing decision to close their dining room. Instead of feeding patrons on site, they shifted their business model to providing to-go meals in biodegradable clamshell containers.

The pivot wasn’t easy. 

Just prior to the pandemic, Cilantro undertook an extensive interior renovation, which involved replacing flooring, painting the walls and updating décor. The café also earned its first Best Indian Restaurant Maggy Award in 2020 following multiple years of receiving honorable mentions. 

Ansari and Rahman have weathered the storm, thanks largely to help from their two eldest sons, both of whom are in their early 20s (they also have a 16-year-old son and a 9-year-old daughter). Faithful patrons also regularly called in orders for chicken tikka masala, lamb biryani and karahi shrimp. Never mind the distinctive roghni naan bread and house-made desserts like the sublime cardamom pistachio cheesecake. 

Although the restaurant’s lunch service remains on indefinite hiatus, dine-in at dinnertime has resumed Tuesday through Saturday from 4-8:30 p.m.

We checked in recently with Rahman to get an update on how business is going and to find out what keeps a smile on their faces. 

It’s great to see your two sons involved in the family business. How have they helped you over the years? 

They are the pillars that hold up Cilantro.

Why do you think Cilantro resonates so well with diners in Cary?  

We try to facilitate the neighborhood restaurant feel. Although it is ethnic cuisine, we serve it in a fast, casual and comfortable environment, thus making it more accessible and possible for everyday meals.

What has been the biggest challenge of running the restaurant? 

One adversity we faced when we first opened was due to the fact that we did not offer a buffet, which at that time was a staple in Indian restaurants. Another difference was that we had a casual setup with ordering at the counter, which was a new concept because Indian cuisine was associated as a formal dining experience. Therefore, our biggest challenge was to introduce to our community Indian food as fresh and casual, everyday food. 

How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected your business? 

In so many ways! Our restaurant was not old enough or big enough to quality for the government aid that it needed, therefore we used creative trial-and-error strategies to make it survive through this pandemic. We, our course, had to cut our hours and dine-in service. We continue work as hard as we can, trying to take on more responsibilities ourselves. Thanks to God’s blessings and the support of our customers, we hope to continue serving!

You recently completed a total makeover of the restaurant. Why did you decide to renovate the space?    

After operating Cilantro for just over five years, MacGregor Village shopping center underwent a full-scale remodel. Therefore, we used this opportunity to also give Cilantro a refreshing touch. 

Your customer service is superb. To what do you attribute your commitment to delivering an outstanding experience to your guests? 

If we cannot make our guests have the best possible experience to the best of our abilities, then we will not be here. When someone enters Cilantro, we want them to leave with a smile. If someone comes in with the intention of eating, we will not let them leave without food. 

During the renovations of MacGregor Village (years ago), when construction workers were working in the shopping center, one person knocked on our kitchen door and asked to use our microwave to warm up their food. My husband said ‘no’ due to sanitation rules and regulations. However, he invited him and his three colleagues to have lunch in the dining room. Of course, we are doing this to make money. However, the feelings that we collect by providing our best to our guests are very, very addictive and uplifting. 

What has been most rewarding about owning the business?   

Being new to the business field, we entered this profession with a critical need and a strong desire. With the abundant and endless blessings of God and the devoted support and care from our customers, we experienced success. We feel our best and truly rewarded when we know that our guests arrive at Cilantro happy and leave content. Having the care and support of so many people is truly one of the most rewarding aspects of owning Cilantro Indian Café.

Cilantro Indian Café
107 Edinburgh South Drive
MacGregor Village, Cary
(919) 234-1264

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