ITHACA, NY -- The Nirvana Foods Bazaar is one of many innovative businesses in downtown Ithaca. Owned and run solely by couple Sujata and Sanjay Behuria, the Indian eatery combines the convenience of international grocery and ingredients with the quality of an in-store restaurant. Taking inspiration from the many places the Behurias have lived over the years, the Nirvana Foods Bazaar delivers big flavors and a compelling story behind them.
Prior to settling down in the U.S. in 2009, Sanjay and Sujata lived in India, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and Dubai, where Sanjay worked as a financial consultant and Sujata, a schoolteacher.
“I never liked being a banker from the day I started to the day I gave it up 35 years later,” Sanjay admits. “But I needed the money! We worked hard for this for many years. It took a long time but it happened. That’s how life comes around and around and around.”
Nevertheless, the couple’s travels throughout the Middle East and Africa help to inform many of the flavors and cooking used in their eatery today. “We use the same Marsala, but it never tastes the same as it did the last time. There’s a lot of variation,” explained Sujata.
The idea for starting their own local business was first planted into their heads in 1998 when the couple visited their son, Srujan, in Rochester where he studied at the Rochester Institute of Technology. While there, Sujata was praised for her biryani recipe, a mixed rice dish with meat that uses Indian spices and yogurt. She was told by anyone who tried her dish that she should stay in the Rochester area to make biryani for the local collegetown. The couple went back to India however, but their idea to start a food service that brought people together continued to grow.
After many years of being a reluctant banker and a move to the U.S. in 2009, Sanjay and Sujata finally decided to purchase a space for a local convenience store in 2018. The Collegetown Mini Mart became Your Own Variety Store and although it served its purpose for a while, Sanjay still felt unsatisfied with their business.
“Well, I used to say, when people asked me how I was doing, ‘I have a lot of fun, but the joy is missing,’ because people come for their groceries and then leave. But I wanted to be able to make people food.”
Thus, the couple’s new self-described retirement plan became the Nirvana Foods Bazaar. Using a unique business model, Sanjay and Sujata provide the community with their best recipes and Indian grocery.
“Normally, a store and eatery is not a popular thing; it’s probably popular in villages, but in cities, people don’t understand that concept, so I had to do a lot of explaining [at first],” Sanjay describes. “You can buy online groceries, you can order online food, and you can walk in and say, ‘I need food,’ and you can sit on the porch and we’ll make it,” says Sanjay. “Yeah, we like to make [our food] fresh; we don’t like to reheat,” Sujata adds.
While Sujata may have first been recognized for her dishes, it is mainly Sanjay who cooks the food now. “I cook too much!” Sujata jokes when asked why she no longer enjoys cooking. “So now he makes the recipes but I’m still around to see that everything goes right.”
The couple believes in customizing their recipes rather than standardizing them and hopes to feed their customers food that is constantly surprising and never the same. Featured on the menu of Nirvana are Kathi rolls, Chicken Tikka Masala, Curries, Masala Dosa and Masala Chai with additional foods added to their menu regularly.
After many years of careers and homes that never felt quite right, Sanjay and Sujata have finally found the joy they first began working towards in India, in Rochester, in Africa, and in every career they took on. “
We wanted to be as unique as possible, but there’s an impression that this is something different. It’s standard, but it’s different. It’s something that people see and get excited,” Sanjay explains.
Sanjay now works at the eatery full-time while Sujata works part-time at TJ Maxx and at Nirvana. “It’s not very big,” Sanjay explains, “but it’s really nice. We don’t intend to make it bigger. One of the lesser known American dreams is to have a second home where you can relax. So this is our second home.”
The Nirvana Foods Bazaar is located at 528 W Seneca Street in downtown Ithaca. The boutique eatery is open every day with varying hours. You can order food and learn more on their website here.