As Rajun Cajun restaurant at 1459 E. 53rd Street prepares to celebrate its 23rd anniversary in December 2016, the 53rd Street Blog is pleased to feature Hyde Park resident and businessman Trushar Patel in this latest edition of “Faces of 53rd Street.”
We recently sat down with Patel, 60, (or more accurately, we sat down and he kept jumping up to personally attend to the constant stream of happy diners) to learn more about the history of this Hyde Park institution and his family’s involvement in the evolution of 53rd Street.
What led you to open Rajun Cajun?
“I was a supervisor at McDonald’s for 16 years. I started as a crewmember, and worked my way up to become a supervisor of four stores – all of them located in Chicago, and all owned by the same person. My goal was always to have my own McDonald’s location. I thought my goal was in sight when my son Nishil was unexpectedly born three months premature in 1991. Nishil was born weighing just 1 lb. 9 oz., and spent three months in the neonatal intensive care unit. Even though I had insurance, it didn’t cover everything, and my life savings went to pay the medical bills. I had to give up my dream of owning a McDonald’s franchise, and I started looking for local businesses that my brother and I could work at together as a family. A local broker found the Rajun Cajun location in 1993, and we were open for business on December 9th that year. The business was originally called Cajun Joe’s Chicken Palace, a sister franchise of Subway that no longer exists, and we decided to change the name to Rajun Cajun to keep some of the name recognition. The original plan was to pronounce ‘Rajun’ as in ‘done’ and meaning ‘king’ in Hindi, but everyone started pronouncing it to rhyme with ‘Cajun’ and the name has stuck ever since. Rajun Cajun now offers a combination of Indian and soul food and our customers love the variety.”
How many people does the restaurant employ? Are any from Hyde Park or the South Side?
“Rajun Cajun has eight employees, including me, my wife, and son. All of us live in Hyde Park.”
What is the best part of being a local business owner and employer in the community?
“I learned a lot from my time with McDonald’s about quality, cleanliness, and service, and I take a lot of pride in my business. We serve excellent quality food – nothing is ready-made or out of a can. Indian recipes are very labor intensive, and we make everything ourselves with lots of peeling and chopping of fresh ingredients. You can come to the restaurant at any time, and it will always be spotless – everything in the restaurant gets cleaned from top to bottom every day. I personally never take a day off, and am at the restaurant from open to close every day without a vacation. It takes a lot of my time, but it’s a sacrifice you have to be willing to make if you want to be a successful business owner. One of my favorite things to see is the generations of families as my customers. Maybe a customer came to us as a pregnant mom, and now I have her 22-year old kid as a customer. We treat our customers like family, and that’s an extension of the way we treat our employees, too. It’s not the typical employer/employee relationship – there’s a lot of trust involved. Our employees cook their own foods for lunch or dinner in the restaurant, and it’s really a ‘home away from home’ for them. Roberta, the woman who makes our samosas, has been with us for 23 years, and Teresa, the woman who bakes our bread, has been with us 20 years. The first Rajun Cajun employees are still here, and we’ve become a true family.”
There’s a large photo mural of postcards sent to Rajun Cajun by loyal customers displayed on the wall of the renovated restaurant. How did this practice get started?
“When we first opened in 1993, no one knew there was an Indian restaurant in Hyde Park, and we had to rely on word of mouth and recommendations to get new customers. Students started coming in, became our friends, they told other friends, and our business grew. When customers went on vacation or back to their home countries they would send postcards to the restaurant. We got so many and used to throw them out, but my nephew told me we should save them, and we started displaying them on the wall. When the restaurant was renovated last summer, we decided to turn the postcards into a mural for everyone to enjoy.”
What are some of your favorite things about 53rd Street?
“The restaurant has been open since 1993, and my family has lived in Hyde Park since about 1996. During that time there’s been an amazing transformation in Hyde Park, and we love it. Things can never stay the same – especially in a city neighborhood – and the Hyatt Hotel, Harper Theater, and the many shops and restaurants have all contributed to the growth of Hyde Park and our local economy. President Obama likes change, and we do, too.”
During more than 20 years here, what have been your impressions of Hyde Park?
“When I worked at McDonald’s I never went past downtown and had no idea about the south side – it was a new thing for me and it was very exciting to see all the different people from different backgrounds here. For example, my wife is from Tanzania, and Sister Rose, the owner of the shop Kilimanjaro International at 1305 E. 53rd Street, also happens to be from Tanzania. It’s a very small world, made even smaller when you live and work in Hyde Park.”
What do you like to do in Hyde Park when you are not working?
“It sounds funny, but after a long day at the restaurant, my wife, Anila, and I like to go out to dinner. Some of our favorite local places include the Litehouse Whole Food Grill, the Sitdown Café and Sushi Bar, Wingers, Chipotle, Maravillas, and Boston Market.”
What are your plans for the future at Rajun Cajun?
“Nishil (Patel’s only son) is now 25 years old. He works at the restaurant every day, but he’s also in the process of getting his Ph.D. in neuropsychology, and he won’t be continuing on full-time, so it looks like I won’t be retiring any time soon.
We’re very proud of the money we’ve been able to collect for an orphanage with 150 children in Chanod, India – more than $2,000 last year – all due to the generosity of our customers who contribute to our collection box near the cash register. The money goes to provide healthy meals, school supplies, and food for Nandani, the ophanage’s calf.
We’re happy to be on 53rd Street, and plan to continue offering quality dining for our customers for a long time to come.”