Sharing a taste of home with chicago

Insights from Hema Potla, Hema's Kitchen (West Ridge, Park West)

Hema Potla, women owned Indian food restaurant

When Hema Potla, owner and head chef of Hema's Kitchen, first proposed moving to America to pursue business opportunities, her husband refused. But she wouldn't take no for an answer, and after lots of persuasion… “He gave in.”

Hema is a natural businesswoman. She wants her customers to feel at home in her restaurant, greeting each and every person with a smile and asking them about their food and their day. Originally from Hyderabad, India, Hema was already an entrepreneur before coming to the U.S.--she opened Hema’s Beauty Shop in 1970, and sold beauty and tailoring services, textiles, and cosmetics. “[People] used to come get their things stitched, and come for eyebrow [services], and come for haircut[s]. Everything at one place.”

She recalls that tourists visited her store and urged her to go to America. “They brainwashed me!” she joked. When she eventually did come to America in 1989, she assumed that she would start another beauty shop. However, she came to find that it was harder to find employees here than in India, and considered other options: “Once I stepped into America, I realized that it’s not going to be that easy.”  

Hema used to cook for her family in India and wanted to share that in her new home, but had the challenge of learning about commercial cooking in America. She began the learning process as a kitchen assistant in a small Indian restaurant in Chicago. It wasn’t long before she had made a reputation for herself: “People came to know I’m a hard-working woman.” She worked her way up to assistant chef and soon was ready for a bigger upgrade, so she opened Hema’s Kitchen and became a business owner once again.

You’ve got to have discipline, dedication, and enthusiasm to go forward, to do more for yourself and your community.
— Hema Potla
Hema's Kitchen, women owned Indian food restaurant Chicago

But she didn’t just start a restaurant; Hema built a loyal community and family. She knows her customers personally: “Hema’s food is one side, Hema’s greetings are one side. That makes people come in again and again.” And she even has customers who used to eat at her restaurant as kids: “Now they themselves are parents, and they bring their children.” Plus, the majority of her staff and chefs have been with her for over a decade. “It became like a family, once they’re working for me so long.”

In addition to the family she’s forged with her staff and customers, her restaurant is a place where some of her own family members grew up. “I brought up my two grandchildren in the restaurant. I used to have a playpen in that corner… I take orders, and go inside and cook. And when I’m busy with my cooking, if they cry, my customers used to take care of them.”

Creating this tight, loving community didn’t happen overnight, and it required hard work and perseverance: “You’ve got to have discipline, dedication, and enthusiasm to go forward, to do more for yourself and your community.”

In a male-dominated restaurant business, Hema’s titles as an owner and chef give her skills and flexibility that the mostly non-chef, male owner population lacks. Hema can take up any position in the restaurant at the drop of a hat: “I can cook and I can take orders and I can wash the dishes.”

When it comes down to it, Hema’s restaurants are her happy place and her passion. “I’m more happy when I’m in my restaurant. I feel very good when I’m here. And it is very hard for me to stay at home.”

Hema's Kitchen women owned Indian food restaurant
Hema's Kitchen women owned indian food restaurant chicago
Sophie DavisComment