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Engineering restaurant success

When Sarita Ekya (BEng’99) opened S’MAC, short for Sarita’s Macaroni and Cheese, in New York’s East Village, her mother’s only question was ‘You do use your education don’t you?’ “I’m from an Indian family, born and raised to know that academics are the most important thing,” Ekya explains. “My dad was a civil engineering professor at TUNS (Technical University of Nova Scotia, which merged with Dalhousie University in 1997), so I followed that path.”

Ekya started her career in an engineering firm in Halifax, but her heart was set on living in a big city far from her hometown of Dartmouth. Her next move was a biomedical company in Manchester, New Hampshire. “It was the size of Dartmouth, so not quite the big city move I wanted, but they were doing amazing and cutting edge work,” says Ekya. Two years later, she met her husband (Caesar Ekya, also an engineer) on a plane from Boston to Toronto, and for their two-month anniversary the couple went to New York. Ekya says she fell in love with the city. “Not long after that, we started saying we had to move there.”

By the end of July 2005, the couple had ditched their jobs and moved to a sublet in the East Village, with the idea that they could live off their savings while waiting to find engineering jobs that they loved. They ate their way through the city, falling in love with niche restaurants where they just served one thing really well, like peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, or grilled cheese.  “I said to Caesar, wouldn’t it be great if there was a place that just did mac and cheese?” And so a couple of engineers with no restaurant experience (save Caesar waiting tables when doing his master’s degree) set about starting a restaurant.

Ekya befriended a chef-owner of a local restaurant and worked front of house to learn the ins and out of restaurant life. The couple developed recipes with a teaching chef they met, and people in their new community told them about a space they could rent. “I know it’s not what people think of New York but we immediately found a community that supported us,” Ekya says. S’MAC was an immediate success and has now been operating for 13 years.

To answer her mom’s question, Ekya says that she does still use her education. “I was always more of a project manager. We got popular so fast that we immediately had to fix the process—people were waiting too long. This crazy engineering part of us got triggered,” she says, as they tweaked the kitchen equipment they were using and rethought the takeout packaging, going to suppliers with spreadsheets in hand. “That first three to four years we were in business, it was all engineering.”