January 29, 2021
Recipe for Success
Alumna Raji Sankar forges her own path in the restaurant industry
By Sarah Burke
An Appetite for Authenticity
Growing up in India, Carnegie Mellon University alumna Raji Sankar saw firsthand how making food can be a labor of love.
“I get exhausted sometimes looking back on how my grandparents used to cook — all from scratch, no technology or equipment to speak of,” Raji says. “It was sheer love.”
Today, Raji’s passion for fresh, wholesome food infuses everything she does.
A 2000 graduate of CMU’s Tepper School of Business, Raji is co-founder and co-CEO of restaurant development company Wholesome International, which owns and operates Choolaah Indian BBQ and franchises Five Guys.
Choolaah, a fast-casual Indian concept, opened in Cleveland in 2014 and has since expanded to five additional locations in Pennsylvania and Virginia. From the beginning, Choolaah has aimed to delight Indian food fanatics and newcomers alike.
“That was the most important code to crack,” Raji says. “How can we be accessible yet authentic?”
Choolaah’s dishes are made from scratch using custom spice blends and no artificial colors or preservatives. Team members prepare buttery naan and flavorful meats in clay tandoor ovens — a cooking method that dates back thousands of years.
The restaurant’s name is a play on “sanjha chulha,” neighborhood ovens that served as central gathering places in ancient northern India, and the Choolaah experience is designed to evoke a similar feeling of warmth and community.
“Choolaah is for everyone,” Raji says.
“A great recipe is made of many ingredients — that’s what this team is. Our mission, vision and values are what draw people to this company, and it’s such a blessing that these people have chosen to align themselves with this cause.”
As Raji navigates the challenges the pandemic has brought to the restaurant industry, she and Choolaah’s senior leadership have kept their core values at the heart of their decision-making.
“In March, we were in shock like everybody else, trying to figure out what we should do,” she says. “We had two choices — be afraid or play offense.”
Raji and her team chose the latter. To help slow the spread of COVID-19, Choolaah has remained takeout-only since March 2020, even when state guidelines allowed dining rooms to reopen at reduced capacity.
“Every decision mattered,” Raji says. “It impacted lives.”
Fortunately, Choolaah had launched a new online ordering platform on March 12, 2020 — just in time to support new ways of doing business.
“We leveraged technology for everything, and convenience for our guests became even more paramount,” Raji says. “Our mission to delight every guest just took a slightly different route.”
Choolaah focused diligently on curbside pickup, redesigned lines to be more efficient and implemented new procedures to keep workers safe and healthy. Community outreach went virtual as well.
“Giving back has always been a big focus for Choolaah,” Raji says. “Our team was able to bring our fundraising events online, so today someone can place an order and support their favorite charity at the same time.”
Raji also works hard to create a supportive internal culture at Choolaah. She says the organization is committed to helping employees grow, promoting from within and recognizing outstanding performance.
“A great recipe is made of many ingredients — that’s what this team is,” Raji says. “Our mission, vision and values are what draw people to this company, and it’s such a blessing that these people have chosen to align themselves with this cause.”
“My first semester, I wanted to major in finance, maybe become an investment banker. Then I took an introduction to entrepreneurship class. That was it for me. Game over.”
A Lifetime of Learning
A self-described “permanent student,” Raji took an unusual path to Carnegie Mellon. While she’s called Pittsburgh home for decades, she hails from another steel city thousands of miles away — Bhilai, India.
Before moving to the United States with her husband, she earned a bachelor’s degree in metallurgy from the Visvesvaraya National Institute of Technology and a master’s degree in mechanical engineering from the Indian Institute of Science.
Raji pursued additional education and work opportunities in artificial intelligence and consulting prior to enrolling in the Tepper School as an MBA student.
“My first semester, I wanted to major in finance, maybe become an investment banker,” she says. “Then I took an introduction to entrepreneurship class. That was it for me. Game over.”
Raji explains that the mentoring she received at CMU has served her well in her career.
“Looking at my background, I’ve never followed the norm,” she says. “CMU helped me learn how to connect the dots and have a vision for something. I had the chance to learn about marketing, operations, strategy, finance — an incredible combination. It was exactly what I needed to be a rounded leader, a rounded entrepreneur.”
Today, Raji gives back as a dedicated supporter and volunteer. She was a guest speaker at the Tepper School’s 2020 Leadership Conference, and Choolaah has supported CMU events as a sponsor.
“I gain a lot from staying involved at CMU,” Raji says. “It’s energizing to see these young, fresh faces all inspired and ready to take on the world.”
If Raji had to sum up her leadership style in one word, it would be “co-creation.” She believes the future holds unlimited potential for Choolaah — and she’s ready to make some serious magic with her team.
“How good can we get? That’s really what we ask ourselves,” she says. “If we do the right things for a higher purpose, we have the opportunity of a lifetime. Right now, there’s not an Indian brand you can point to and say, ‘That is the mega-brand.’ So that’s our dream — to reach every corner of the globe.”