Shortly after getting married in the sacred town of Mayapur, India, second generation ISKCON devotees Nila and Jahnava Rico Khurana, both 29, decided to take a brave step off the beaten path.
Before taking on the householder life of children and financial responsibilities, they wanted to dedicate two years of their lives to full-time service at a Krishna temple.
This February, Nila put his nine-to-five job with his family’s real estate business on hold, and the two left their home in the peaceful small town of Alachua, Florida to run the brand new Taste of Bhakti Café and Boutique at the Bhakti Center in Manhattan, New York City. Nila oversees the Café, while Jahnava heads up the boutique.
“We chose the Bhakti Center because it seemed a good fit for our natures,” says Nila. “Prasadam [sanctified food] is one of the ways of letting people get to know our culture that I identify with the most. And I knew Jahnava would be really good at running a gift shop, because she has very good taste and fashion sense, and is very good with people.”
While the Bhakti Center has had a restaurant on and off for the past seven years, Taste of Bhakti is a fresh new start spearheaded by ISKCON’s second generation and other young devotees.
After Chaitanya Kapadia, Krsangi Chander and Jahnava’s cousin Mathura Rico volunteered their free time to start developing the project, Nila and Jahnava arrived and were able to hit the ground running.
First, they took three months to completely renovate the interior, develop new menus, perform inspections and build their merchandise inventory.
They then opened the boutique on April 19th, with a six-hour kirtan and sale of used devotional clothing and items called “Bhakti Bazaar.”
The café’s grand opening followed on May 15th, coinciding with Lord Nrsimhadeva’s appearance day celebrations. Three hundred people attended the arati, abhishekh bathing ceremony, drama and class by visiting guru Radhanath Swami. They were then treated to a free 12-course feast by the café of samosas, fancy rice, palak paneer, chutney, spanakopita and more.
“It’s going to be a restaurant, not a free feast / restaurant hybrid, but we wanted to start off in a nice way,” says Nila.
Taste of Bhakti’s home, at 25 1st avenue, is in the midst of Manhattan’s East Village, a hipster spot populated by vegan restaurants and organic juice bars. So with its veggie menu board and exotic clothing visible through a glass shop front, it quickly draws passersby.
Inside, visitors first enter the boutique, which connects them to Krishna consciousness as a universal rather than an Indian culture. Set against its trendy brick walls are not only colorful Indian clothing and books by ISKCON founder Srila Prabhupada, but also books on vegetarianism, yoga and personal growth, jewelry, and gift products featuring positive quotes.
Behind the boutique, in the same long, rectangular space, is the Taste of Bhakti Café. A bright, welcoming space with blond wood floors and tables, it features an appealing buffet counter and a large chalk board displaying the day’s specials.
The café is open six days a week, and offers dinner from 5pm to 10pm on Tuesday through Saturday. As well as staples like rice, salad, soup, pasta, bread, and veggies, diners can tuck in to specials based on a different international cuisine each day – there’s Indian, Italian, Mediterranean, Latin and American. And on Sunday, there’s a delicious brunch from 11am to 3pm of vegan pancakes, scrambled and barbecue tofu, and spinach filo.
“Most of the vegan and vegetarian restaurants on the Lower East side are Chinese cuisine, and there aren’t a lot of other options,” Jahnava says. “But we have a blend of all international cuisines, which makes it really unique.”
More than just a place to eat and shop, Taste of Bhakti, with its attractive ground floor entrance, is the perfect introduction to all the activities that go on throughout the Bhakti Center’s six floors. The café draws forty to fifty people a day, while another thirty to forty come to shop at the boutique. Many have questions.
“A lot of them just want to know more about our philosophy, so I take my time to introduce them to chanting and to our Vaishnava culture,” says Jahnava.
Nila and Jahnava also invite customers to the Bhakti Center’s weekly kirtans, its classes on the Bhagavad-gita and Ayurvedic vegetarian cooking, and its various other spiritual seminars and workshops.
“My favorite part about working here is being able to share Krishna consciousness, which is the best gift I ever received, with other people, and seeing them open and excited about it,” says Jahnava.
She explains that people can sense there’s something special about the Bhakti Center. “Most people walk in with a compliment like, ‘I love the energy in this place,’ or ‘This place is the jewel of the neighborhood,” she says. “I even had someone come across the street and say, ‘You guys have such a beautiful energy that sometimes when I feel sad I just look through the window and I feel better.’”
The service that Nila, Jahnava, Chaitanya, Krishangi, Mathura, Doyal Gauranga and others do at the Bhakti Center is not only drawing newcomers. It’s also inspiring their young friends to make their own contributions. Goura Rivera has volunteered hours of his time designing clothing tags, banners and signs for Taste of Bhakti. Balaram Poddar has helped with marketing. Narayan Gibbs helped with the renovations. And now many other second generation devotees, seeing their friends stepping up, are coming forward to invest their own time and energy in other areas of the Bhakti Center.
“It’s all because the management here gave us the room to run with the project without micromanaging,” says Nila. “So now all our friends are volunteering their own creative energies and their own ideas, and that’s just so much more fulfilling for them.”
Of course, while volunteers have been essential to this early stage of the project, Nila aims to set it up as an effective business before he leaves.
“Initially we’re having to rely on a lot of people to do service, both from the team and from the greater community, and that’s wonderful to see,” he says. “But we want to get to the point where the project not only provides financially for the Bhakti Center, but also provides support for the people who are serving it to live comfortably and not have to oversacrifice. We want it to be a project that is very beneficial to the public, but that’s also financially sound.”[ bhakti-center ] [ new-york-city ]