Student-Led Pop-Up Eatery Becomes Full-Time Indian Restaurant on Campus
Shreya Akula decided it was time to be frank with her boss.
Akula, then a student intern with DineSLU, had some thoughts about the Indian food being served at SLU that she wanted to share with DineSLU Resident District Manager Myron Bridges. Akula said the food was fine but felt it could be better.
“When I was a student here getting my master’s degree, I was doing part-time work as a food service worker,” Akula said. “Then I became a supervisor, and I had more interactions with management. I think it was during an international week, they had some food prepared by the regular chefs in Grand Dining Hall. After I tasted it, I felt like the chicken curry they made — it was not good chicken curry. It didn’t have any of that authentic taste. It was imperfect, and I wanted to make it more perfect.”
From that conversation, Spice Market was born. Spice Market is a new Indian-food restaurant in Fusz Hall. It opened for the fall semester.
DineSLU was already in talks with Student Involvement about diversifying its menu. Saint Louis University’s international student population was growing, with many coming to St. Louis from India. Food is often tied to feelings of home, so DineSLU was looking to create more authentic dishes.
Bridges challenged Akula to round up a team of DineSLU culinarians to improve the Indian offerings. DineSLU already employed a number of students from India, and Bridges said he knew they were cooking their own food at home.
A week later, Akula brought in Abdur Shaik and Nitish Maley, and the group went to work.
“What if we could get the spice and the recipes — we already had the cooks, and we were going to pair them up with our culinary team,” Bridges said. “We’re not going to be cooking in a home kitchen, we’re going to be working in a commercial facility. It’s not food for a few people, it’s food for 100s.”
The group worked on recipes in the lab to perfect their dishes. Bridges said he found himself frequently running to local stores to get more spices. When the group was ready, the DineSLU team decided to open a one-time pop-up restaurant in Grand Dining Hall.
“The first week, we decided to do it as a pop-up after spring break, and the line was all the way around the dining hall and back at the register,” Bridges said. “It stayed that way until we shut it down. Off that, we decided to open the pop-up that every Friday, and every Friday, we had the same results.”
Akula said news of the food and its authentic quality got around campus quickly.
“People from diverse backgrounds showed up and liked it,” she said. “To be honest, it didn’t take long for the word to spread. Students were flocking to savor the flavors of India.”
Bridges said his student chefs “owned” the concept. They would plan the menu a week in advance and start preparing on Wednesday. Thursday meant more prep work in the kitchen, and by Friday, the chefs were ready for customers.
The chefs balanced the work in the kitchen with their work in the classroom. Bridges said the students worked hard and did an exceptional job balancing culinary and academic life — so much so that they often refused his help.
“They took it, owned it, and ran with it,” he said. “Whenever I go in to aid and assist, they always tell me I don’t have to work.”
After the success of the pop-up restaurant, the Spice Market team began looking ahead and discussed the possibility of making the concept permanent. With open space in Fusz Hall, the talks progressed.
“At the end of the semester, we started talking about making this a reality – an actual place on campus,” he said. “We talked about it from the business side and the management side and got feedback to make the dream become a reality.”
Following her graduation from SLU in the spring with a master’s degree in information systems, Akula stayed on with DineSLU. She worked with the team to craft a menu for the full-time Spice Market. She is now the manager, in addition to working in the finance department with Sodexo.
Spice Market officially opened on Aug. 22 — Akula’s 24th birthday.
“It felt like my baby and opening on my birthday; it felt like a gift to myself,” she said.
Spice Market is located next to Qdoba in Fusz. The restaurant is open from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday through Thursday and from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. on Friday. The restaurant is closed on the weekends.
Madeline Erdman, Sodexo marketing coordinator, said the feedback has been positive.
“We’ve done like free sampling events where we just go out and give people samples,” Erdman said. “Whenever we’ve done that, people always tell us that they love it and I’ve seen them back in here. Some people really do eat it every day.”
Akula said the chicken kabobs and mango lassi drink are her two favorite items on the menu. She said the food is for everyone.
“Indian cuisine shares a lot of commonalities with cuisines from Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Nepal, and Afghanistan,” she said. “The spices resonate with the Middle Eastern countries, so it’s not all about India. It’s for everyone around the globe.”
Akula, who is originally from Telangana, India, said her goal for Spice Market is for it to be a place where people come together.
“The essence of Spice Market is not only to be a dining establishment but to bridge cultures,” she said. “Food is a universal language, and it brings together people from all over.”