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Two Rego Park ‘food-preneurs’ share their homemade goodies with neighbors during the pandemic

Nupur Arora (left) and Lisa Costa (right) are two food-preneurs based in Rego Park. (Photo courtesy of QCK/viewfinderphotography; Lisa Costa)

That old-school adage – “The way to a man’s heart is through his stomach” – can, of course, apply to anyone who appreciates delicious, wholesome chow whipped up with a hefty dollop of love.

That sentiment was shared by so many New Yorkers during the pandemic who’ve been craving satisfying comfort eats. Remember all those videos featuring banana bread recipes?

During those long, trying months, two hard-working, Rego Park-based food-preneurs — Nupur Arora, a New Delhi native who launched Queens Curry Kitchen, and Lisa Costa, who re-discovered her patisserie skills with her Peace, Love & Dough bakery — knew that the best way to their beloved community’s “heart” was through their quarantined neighbors’ stomachs.

So, they decided to give back by sharing a variety of hearty, home-cooked offerings. For these creative foodies, it was truly a labor of love — and doing what they enjoyed helped them get through without going crazy. 

“I think that we were all looking for comfort and love, to make that time easier to deal with,” Arora told QNS.

Now, as COVID-19 begins to fade and the “World’s Borough” comes back to life, these small, homespun businesses have continued to thrive, becoming successful food services. Orders keep pouring in from locals, and people from other parts of New York, who can’t get enough of Arora’s authentic and soulful Indian vegan dishes and Costa’s addictive artisanal breads and other freshly baked goods cooked in her cozy, fragrant kitchen.

Everything is prepared, packed and delivered with cleanliness and safety as a priority.

Both business owners were eager to share their gastro stories with QNS readers.

Arora’s meal delivery activity started around May in the middle of the lockdown last year, when a concerned son from Long Island contacted her to make food for his elderly parents who live in her neighborhood.

“I asked him where he got my number and he referred back to one of his friends from Columbia University, who used to buy Indian food from me when I was doing it as a hobby about five years ago,” Arora said. “When I told him of my husband’s Manhattan restaurant (Mughlai Indian Cuisine) being closed due to the lockdown, he insisted that he would much rather have me make it in my home than in our restaurant. His 82-year-old father, a rabbi from India, had just had surgery and his mother was taking care of him. They were getting some food from the synagogue, but it was not to their liking.”

Rajma dish. (QCK/viewfinderphotography)

So, Arora started taking food to them weekly, and because the rabbi and his wife loved it, it became a ritual.

During that time, she started making and posting daily videos from her home kitchen just to share what she was cooking with limited pantry supplies. Some friends put in requests for her meals, which she happily delivered. Then, more friends shared photos on social media and raved about her dishes, while others also asked to sample some, as they were too busy to cook and working from home.

They craved healthy, plant-based Indian dishes but didn’t necessarily know how to make them. 

“Our short, physically distanced food drop-offs became our only human interaction. I was a new empty-nester who was alone at home all day long, and sharing a smile and conversations gave us all something to look forward to,” Arora remembered. “My community and steadily growing tribe of clients filled the void for me and continue to do so, as I don’t know when I will see my family in India again.”

Queens Curry Kitchen recently donated all sales proceeds to help her COVID-ravaged homeland.

Arora’s business has been growing since launching last year, and she continues to make delicious Indian vegan dishes from her husband’s restaurant kitchen. (QCK/viewfinderphotography)

Arora talked about some family favorites that she’s been making for clients from her husband’s restaurant kitchen, as she needed a commercial space when her business expanded.

“My daughter loves a good Rajma Masala [kidney bean curry], as well as my Tex Mex and Indian-style Thai dishes that I make regularly. My husband loves homemade delicacies, like Kadhi Pakora [onion and potato fritters dumplings made in a tangy yogurt curry],” she noted.

Queens Curry Kitchen’s menu changes weekly and it’s set up “exactly like a mother would cook for her family, so that they do not get bored of eating the same old things.”

Arora noted some of her popular dishes include her veggie wraps (Veg Seekh kabab/paneer tikka), tomato soup, tofu in Tom Yum Sauce, Pani Puri and Aloo Tikki are very popular. She also gets compliments in the weeks she includes free Halwa, Poori, Chana — an offering made for their observance of Navratri, mother goddess holy days, Arora explained.

Corn ceviche in wonton cups. (QCK/viewfinderphotography)
Mushroom tikka. (QCK/viewfinderphotography)

“Little personal touches as this remind them of festivities and celebrations back home, which we all miss in our life here,” she said.

Customers can order a full week of meals (six dishes, two rice and 12 rotis) for $80, or a half week (three dishes, one rice and six rotis) for $45. The menu goes out on Fridays and orders must be placed through the Shopify store by Sunday, for a guaranteed Tuesday delivery.

With a bit of help, Arora makes the food on Tuesday morning then it’s packed and labeled, and then she delivers it herself.

“I’m the chef, the planner, the delivery guy! Imagine if Seamless, Uber Eats and Door Dash had a business with an Indian twist — it would be me,” she said.

Indian homestyle meals, made and delivered by Queens Curry Kitchen. (QCK/viewfinderphotography)

The multi-talented Fashion Institute of Technology-graduate wears many hats. She used to have a boho jewelry and clothing business for many years before venturing into food.

Arora also runs a radio program production company, creating Bollywood shows for Indian radio stations in New York, and a spice manufacturing company that she started last January. 

For budding food-preneurs, Arora suggests reaching out to QEDC, which she said is a great resource thanks to their mentoring and entrepreneurial programs. They also have an incubator kitchen in Long Island City.

“Queens is still a great place for food — even with the pandemic — thanks to entrepreneurs like Nupur,” Rob MacKay, director of marketing for Queens Economic Development Corporation (QEDC), told QNS.

MacKay said Arora’s “great spirit and energy” helped her sell her product.

“She cooks. She teaches. She leads culinary lessons,” MacKay said. “It’s been fun watching Queens Curry Kitchen as it started as just an idea and now it’s blossoming. Nupur is going to have a restaurant soon, I predict.”

Arora also suggested the Tech Incubator at Queens College. Under the guidance of Ying Zhou, Arora met many budding entrepreneurs locally and discovered many resources available to small businesses. 

“Know your gifts, solve problems with your product and/or service, and build a network you can rely on. Be authentic and know your ‘why’ …  you will be able to figure out the ‘how,’” she said.

Arora also suggested to work from a licensed, inspected facility approved by the Department of Health to adhere to the state and city regulations and ensure safety for your clients.

“Also, taking the test for the food handling license is super helpful for every individual in the food business to know the best food safety practices,” she said.

Arora will be expanding into catering for intimate events. In the future, she’d love to open a cooking school and set up a brick-and-mortar in Queens.

“This community is everything to me. I had an offer to set up a spot in Hicksville [Long Island], where Indian community resides, but I declined it because my heart is in Queens. Heck, even my brand is called Queens Curry Kitchen, so why would I want to be anywhere else?” Arora said. “Queens is life, Queens is love. The variety of deliciousness that we have here is so unique, we owe it to all the nationalities that call it home. We can eat a new dish from a new culture every day in Queens, and still not run out of options. I always say, ‘Live like a king, but always eat like you live in Queens!'”

Queens Curry Kitchen food spread. (QCK/viewfinderphotography)

When the pandemic hit, Costa was working at a nonprofit job, which she had transitioned into after years in the food industry. In April of 2020, she was suddenly laid off and was having trouble finding another job in the same industry.

“I was also dealing with the mental health impacts of the pandemic, which made it difficult for me to move forward,” Costa recalled.

But, Costa found motivation by merging her two passions: helping people and baking.

“I didn’t have the time or courage to start something on my own until the pandemic hit,” Costa told QNS.

That changed when Costa participated in a nationwide online bake sale, Bakers Against Racism, in June 2020.

“I was really excited to use my talents to contribute to a good cause. The success of the bake sale motivated me to start baking weekly, especially when people who bought during the bake sale asked for more,” Costa said. “Also, I really needed an outlet to get me in a better mental space, and this was the perfect blend of baking and giving back to the Queens community.”

Lisa Costa, owner of Peace, Love & Dough bakery. (Photo courtesy of Lisa Costa)

Baked offerings include sourdough loaf, a naturally leavened, long fermented “country”-style loaf, as well as a sourdough focaccia with rotating toppings. She also always offers cinnamon and sugar brioche morning buns, which are her most popular item.

Every week, the Culinary Institute of America graduate likes to make a rotating item, which is usually seasonal, or “just something fun” she’s working on. In the past, Costa has made olive oil cake, s’mores cookies, doughnuts and, more recently, croissants.

Costa’s baking days usually begin between 3 or 4 a.m. and don’t end until about 9 p.m.

“The days I’m baking are a little crazy,” Costa said. “My two volunteers (my boyfriend Andrew, and my delivery man and father, Gus) help me pack everything up.”

Sourdough focaccia with olives and rosemary. (Photo courtesy of Lisa Costa)

Deliveries or pickups usually happen around the night. On Saturdays, when Costa’s done baking, she still has to prep for the following day and clean up.

“I usually work until dinner time, and if I’m lucky, I’ll grab a short nap! I try my best to get to bed by 9:30 p.m. and then wake up at 3 a.m. and do it all over again,” Costa said.

Costa, who is registered as a home processor through New York state, said the hardest part about the business so far is the capacity and space, as she’s been “gradually taking over” her whole apartment.

“I always want to produce more products, but have had to recognize what my limits are, which can be difficult,” she said. “I would love to graduate to a bigger oven, which will hopefully happen some day.”

Costa said most of her customers are from Rego Park and Forest Hills/Kew Gardens areas, as well as some folks from Long Island. Every delivery helps her business donate to Queens organizations and other nonprofits — mostly to Together We Can Community Resource Center Inc., a volunteer-led nonprofit serving residents of Jackson Heights, Elmhurst and Corona.

Costa’s deliveries, which are kept contactless and wearing masks, are made between 10:30 a.m. and 12:30 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays. Currently, local deliveries within 8 miles or so cost $2, which she donates, with deliveries outside of that zone typically a higher rate.

Country loaf. (Photo courtesy of Lisa Costa)
Lemon blueberry scone with lemon glaze. (Photo courtesy of Lisa Costa)

For more information, individuals can visit her website at peaceloveanddough.com.

Costa said fellow budding food-preneurs should work on QuickBooks, in order to have a good sense of their finances. She also noted it’s important to make time for self-care.

“There have been so many days where I’ve been overwhelmed by the amount of work, but it always eventually gets done,” Costa said. “Just go for it! People have been telling me for years to sell my baked goods, but I never believed I could do it until I got this push.”

Costa said the experience has helped her believe in her abilities.

“Prior to the pandemic, I didn’t really know many people in the community, but this experience has introduced me to a lot of my neighbors,” Costa said. “My area is really great because of the people. I feel like my customers are the nicest people ever and I feel really grateful to have the opportunity to get to know them.”

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