East Village Restaurant Upends Business Model to Survive the Pandemic

Divya’s Kitchen now makes packaged meal kits and transitioned cooking classes to Zoom

08 Jan 2021 | 10:04

Divya Alter usually had 12 people in her cooking classes. Now she has over 700. She used to only serve freshly cooked meals — using only Ayurvedic ingredients — for customers sitting inside her restaurant. Now, in addition to outdoor dining, she makes pre-packaged dishes for people to cook at home. These are among the things that have changed at her restaurant in the last year.

Divya’s Kitchen, in the East Village on First Avenue and 2nd Street, opened in October 2016. Owners Divya Alter and her husband Prentiss Alter created their business based on Ayurveda, the Indian practice of healing and balancing the body through food.

There are certain rules to Ayurvedic cooking. You don’t mix milk and salt. Cook on a lower heat to preserve the nutrients of the food. Don’t cook spicy foods in the summertime. It may sound arbitrary, but it all comes back to making it as easy and comfortable for your body to digest what you eat, says Divya Alter, which she calls “the essence of good health.” Alter healed her own autoimmune disease, chronic fatigue and severe digestive problems, by eating Ayurvedic foods.

“The way [people] notice it is that at the end, they feel full, like really satisfied and full, but not heavy and lethargic. They don’t need to nap afterwards,” Alter said. “And people are always surprised, like ‘I ate so much, and I feel so light!’”

One of her Ayurvedic meals is lasagna. In a vegetarian or vegan option (the restaurant as a whole is vegetarian), she prepares the ingredients in a way that won’t start “fighting in your stomach.”

“Ayurveda teaches us that you can have two really good ingredients, and they’re great for your health, also very balancing, but when you eat some of them together, they may cause indigestion,” she said.

Huge Setbacks

Alter used to serve her easily digestible meals to 65 indoor guests. At the start of the pandemic in New York last March, the restaurant shut down for two months. The bills did not slow down. The refrigerator needed to keep running, insurance needed to be paid, and rent was still due. Now Alter is feeding about 16 guests, outdoors, under a structure that cost thousands of dollars to build.

“There’s no way to make profit. And we’re like, okay, how can we lower the losses? Because there’s no way to make profits right now or even to break even,” she said.

To compensate for the huge setbacks, Alter and her husband adapted the way they fed their patrons. They converted the basement of the restaurant into a production facility and began making packaged meal kits, which come in paper packets of dried lentil and grain-based ingredients that only require hot water to become a meal. The meals (two servings each) cost between $8.99-$10.99 from the restaurant’s website.

“It’s like, okay, well, how can we help people cook healthy at home?” Alter said. “We’ve already pre-washed the grains, and we’ve soaked them — soaking helps with digestion — and then we dehydrate them, mix them with the right spices and you just pour it in boiling hot water, and you have a meal within 15-20 minutes.”

Online Cooking Classes

Starting last April, Alter transitioned her cooking classes to Zoom and was able to reach hundreds more people than she had ever before. The classes range from $30-$40 and can be replayed after the live session.

“[During] in-person classes, everybody cooks, you know, everybody has a direct experience of how to chop and they see it and then we eat it. We can taste it,” she said. “With the online, we had a tremendous reach. The challenge for me as a teacher was, I couldn’t interact with the students much.”

Though she already has one published cookbook, “What to Eat for How You Feel,” she is taking the slow business as an opportunity to work on a second one. These alternatives to their regular restaurant business aren’t stopping the financial bleeding, but they are slowing it down.

“In Ayurveda, we roll in rhythm with nature, and we kind of try to apply the same principle with what happened last year. We had one idea, and one business plan — obviously, this is not working right now. So, what can we do?” Alter said. “If we were just to focus on all the bad things that are happening and give up hope, we’ll probably not survive as a business by now.”

“If we were just to focus on all the bad things that are happening and give up hope, we’ll probably not survive as a business by now.” Divya Alter of Divya’s Kitchen