Preeti Waas, owner and chef of Cheeni Indian Food Emporium. Photo by Jailyn Neville.

Cheeni Indian Food Emporium | 1141 Falls River Ave, Raleigh | 919-438-1468

The phone rang in Preeti Waas’s home one morning in January. She was in her pajamas, doing administrative work for her small restaurant—her typical morning routine. It was a journalist, calling to congratulate her.

“For what?” Waas said.

The reporter was calling about the James Beard Awards, which recognize the top chefs and restaurants in the United States each year. Waas had been named a semifinalist in the Best Chef Southeast category.

“I actually don’t believe you,” Waas said.

She quickly hung up the phone with promises to call back if the news was true. It was.

The few weeks following the semifinalist announcement were the busiest her restaurant, Cheeni Indian Food Emporium, had ever been since opening in May 2022. Before, Cheeni had about five tables on a Friday night. After, lines overflowed out the door and wait times inflated up to two and a half hours. She had to turn off online ordering.

“I did not know the tsunami that was coming,” Waas said. “It was unmanageable.”

Waas’s staff stepped up during that hectic period, she said.

“I learned that you can depend on people to an extent that I could not have imagined,” Waas said. “I learned that you can sign people’s paychecks, and the relationship that you think will stop just there—it didn’t.”

Waas grew up in India and first became fascinated by baking when new neighbors made a cake using an electric oven, which were not commonly found in Indian kitchens.

She decided to recreate the recipe.

”It was rock hard, it was terrible,” she said. “But it got me hooked because of the alchemy of baking.”

Her passion grew from there, following her to the United States: from Los Angeles to Tulsa to Raleigh. She worked as a private chef, ran a café, worked in catering, taught cooking classes, ran a home baking business, and opened kiosk cafés in two YMCAs in Raleigh.

What Waas felt the United States was missing were the tiny tea shops she had grown up with in India, which sold chai, cookies, baked goods, veg puffs, and more. So, when the YMCA approached her to take over their kiosk in downtown Raleigh, she decided to give it a shot. She opened on November 1, 2019—people loved it.

Those kiosk cafés were also called Cheeni, which means “sugar” in Urdu. This name was a departure from her earlier baking business called Sugar and Spice Kitchen, a change that Waas marked clearly.

“I made that switch in my head, even with that first YMCA location,” she said. “It was going to have Indian offerings; I did not want an American name.”

Eventually, Waas felt she hit a wall selling out of the YMCAs. Things changed after the pandemic, and she could only raise her prices so high. She also never paid her staff less than $12 an hour. When talking with her husband, she knew something had to change—she was not making money.

“Either we need to shut down, or I need to go big,” she said. “It is clear that people want the kind of food I’m cooking, but they want it accessible. They don’t want barriers to it. They want more, not less, from us.”

At that time, big moves in the restaurant industry were not all that popular. Businesses were shutting down left and right in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“He was alarmed when I said that,” she said.

But Waas was determined to make something happen with Cheeni.

“In my mind, I had already taken the leap,” she said. “So I was determined to find this space.”

The space that became Cheeni Indian Food Emporium is nestled in a small shopping center in suburban North Raleigh, across from a Dollar General and an Ace Hardware store. Its redbrick exterior blends into adjacent buildings. A teal picnic table and chalk menu board hint at what you can find inside.

It is open for most of the day—beginning at 10 a.m.—and is multipurpose. One side of the restaurant is a café—you can order coffee, a pastry, a cookie, or breakfast in the morning. Mismatched comfy couches, chairs, and barstools make space for people to work on their computers.

Black-and-white checkered flooring continues from the café space into the dining room, which customers can enter through two teal archways. Once lunchtime comes, you can order kebab rolls, rice bowls, chickpea curry, and other offerings.

Dinner offerings, which can be ordered after 5 p.m., include the hariyali whole fish, Bengali roast chicken, lamb vindaloo, tandoori vegetables, and South Indian vegetable kurma.

All of the food and baked goods are made behind the counter in a kitchen that extends down a narrow hallway, packed with silver appliances on each side.

Others did not see the complex vision for Cheeni as easily as Waas did. To many she spoke with prior to opening, it did not make sense to have the space be an all-day café with a bakery and options for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. But Cheeni is all of that, with a tiny gift shop and full test kitchen for cooking classes to boot.

“It was incredible when it came to life, and none of it looks out of place,” she said. The dining room is marked by upholstered booths and cushioned chairs, which Waas maneuvers around when she enters, moving from table to table. A custom mirror is hung on the wall, inscribed with the words “All I’ve ever wanted to do is feed people.”

As she approaches each table, she asks how the food is and thanks customers for coming.

One customer came up to Waas, gushing about the food as they left.

“This is the best Indian food I’ve ever had,” they said. “And I’ve been to India.”

Waas thanked them, smiling.

“You can see that she is in each and every one of the parts of that restaurant,” Ana Tapioca, a friend of Waas’s said. “It’s a home. You get there—you feel that.”

Wendy Pannell is a home cook who participated in a program Waas headed called Spice Route Kitchens. The program allowed women to make their food during the pandemic in Waas’s commercial kitchen and sell it through her YMCA storefront. Pannell agreed the space is unique to Waas.

“I love her restaurant,” she said. “It’s very homey, very artistic, very classy.”

Even though Waas did not make the finalist list for the James Beard Awards, even the semifinalist nod was a surprise for her.

“It was completely beyond the realm of possibility for somebody like me,” she said. “That was something I knew; it was not something I tried to fight against, it was just reality.”

The influx of business from her James Beard semifinalist status had changed some things for Cheeni but not others. February was the first time the restaurant was able to show a profit.

“What has not changed is that I’m still trying to run a fledgling business,” she said. “More traffic for a new business actually means more problems. It does not mean we’re now in the clear.”

Waas makes her employees a priority, noting the unfairness of the typical server’s wage. Each of her employees starts off making $16 an hour. She said that she made this decision because wants her employees to be able to count on their paychecks and not tie their self-worth to how much they make in tips. She herself has not yet made a cent off the restaurant.

“Is it tenable, is it sustainable?” she asked. “I want to know.”

She said the success has been validating, however, and has shown her what can be possible for Cheeni.

”I am not looking a gift horse in the mouth,” she said. “I’m going to say bring it. And I’m going to say every opportunity that comes my way because of this, I’m going to embrace it with arms wide open.”

This story was originally published by UNC Media Hub.

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