This Michigan Ross Alum went from Starbucks Exec to Solo Success when she Launched her Indian-Inspired Café
Susannah Dhamdhere, MBA ’06, is bringing together her community during difficult times – starting with a simple cup of coffee and savory Indian dishes.
Dhamdhere’s journey began when she and her husband applied to the Ross School of Business with a relentless desire to learn more about business.
“My background was mostly working with small nonprofits, so going to Ross was a big pivot for me,” Dhamdhere said. “I was new to the business world, and I really appreciated the way that my point of view was valued and how I was able to build a toolkit of management understanding.”
Dhamdhere says that it was a case study about the triple bottom line framework that ultimately sparked her interest in Starbucks. The way that Starbucks values the environment, their prioritization of people, and their impact on society intrigued her. As a passionate Starbucks customer, she decided that they were the people she wanted to work for. So she pursued an internship at Starbucks, and moved to Seattle with around 20 Rossers who watched their careers grow together.
“It was an amazing experience,” said Dhamdhere. “We created a professional network, football watching groups, and a great sense of community in Seattle.”
After four successful years as a product manager, and another four as a national account executive at Starbucks, Dhamdhere followed her dream of making a bigger impact, and created something unique and transformative on her own terms.
In January 2019, Dhamdhere opened the doors to Lassi & Spice Café, what she quietly nicknamed the “Southasian Starbucks.” She observed that many Indian restaurants and coffee shops in the area felt old-fashioned, featured barebones decor, and didn’t serve many of the delicious flavors she loved. Inspired by her husband, his family, and their travels to India, she worked to bring a simple menu with authentic flavors to Seattle, beginning with the Chai tea.
“We were very busy and immediately embraced by people in the neighborhood, it was almost overwhelming,” said Dhamdhere. “We received a lot of feedback right away, and people were very vocal about what they expected from the spice to the sauce.”
“I often drew on the concept of co-creation from business school, which means that it is okay to build with your customer, take in information, and evolve your offerings based on customer needs,” she continued.
The COVID-19 pandemic brought hard decisions and unexpected fortune
Dhamdhere made the tough decision to close up shop in mid-March, prior to the onset of COVID-19 lockdowns across the country. Fortunately, she received a grant from Amazon that went to small businesses near its headquarters struggling due to the pandemic. This was one of a few opportunities that Dhamdhere and her company were fortunate to receive on both the local and federal level. Many of Lassi & Spice’s customer base are business professionals from Amazon and other surrounding companies.
“When they stepped up with these grants it was really awesome; I was able to continue paying my employees and keep them home and safe,” she continued. “Amazon created an environment where small businesses could thrive. They even leased office space to small businesses.”
Lassi & Spice started the process of re-opening just a few weeks ago. Dhamdhere says that it will be a slow process of earning back customer’s trust.
“This is a serious crisis for the restaurant industry,” said Dhamdhere. “About a quarter of unemployment is from restaurant workers. I don’t think that restaurants will be the same for a while, but I still have a role to play, and I'm happy to be a part of it because there’s opportunity for impact.”
She believes that people miss gathering and the restaurant experience, and that customers and restaurants are going to have to work together to recreate that experience again.
Although there is still a long way to go, Dhamdhere and her team remain optimistic and continue to do their part through their “Pav is Love” program, which means “Bread is Love” in Hindi. Through this program, they are offering free meals to the hungry, homeless, and unemployed, and also donating products to food banks to help fight food insecurity.
“I’m viewing this as a challenge to overcome and not just looking back and wishing things were what they used to be,” said Dhamdhere. “What opportunities does this present? I get to know new people who live in the neighborhood instead of my corporate regulars; as a result, I’m diversifying my customer base.”
“We’ve also kind of ignored e-commerce, but we need to do this now, and I now have the time and space to work on developing this channel,” she continued. “If you survive this, you can use it to make yourself stronger and more diverse, and place yourself in a position to grow in the future.”