A Café Free of Karmic Debt and Diners

DSC_2958Meredith Hoffman A typical evening rush at the Bhakti Café on First Avenue near Houston.

Christopher Timm is a Hare Krishna monk, not a businessman, who knows it will take more than spiritual power to make a success of the new Bhakti Café on First Avenue near Houston.

Not only has he never before run a business, but also he has not had much experience with restaurants, either, having only eaten in 15 of them, he said, in the past 15 years.

On a recent visit, he turned his head toward the empty tables, reporting that since the café’s opening in May, it has been averaging some 40 customers a night. He said the café would have to start attracting twice that many people if it is going to survive.

“It’s struggling in the sense that we haven’t marketed it yet,” he said of the effort that is just getting under way. A team of Bhakti Center members are advising him on finances and marketing strategy.

Redecoration was the first move. Mr. Timm enlisted the help of India Weinberg, a designer and member of the Bhakti Center, who has endeavored to make the space “cozier.” The restaurant closed for four days last week and reopened last Friday with a new partition and more artwork for its ornately painted walls. Yet at the cafe’s reopening, 26 of the 30 wooden seats sat empty.

“This is just the beginning,” said Mr. Timm, wearing his orange robe, shaved head gleaming like his optimism. “We’re just starting to think of marketing plans now.”

Ms. Weinberg was proud to show off her work-in-progress: cushions for the benches and a bright new menu on the wall with a list of “karma-free” foods, redeemed by monks through the act of chanting. The Green Goodness Sandwich and the Shanti Salad each go for $8.50; the Lentilicious Soup is $4.25.

The menu also explains that “Bhakti is the yoga of loving devotion.”

DSC_2976Meredith Hoffman Monk Christopher Timm and designer India Weinberg at the newly remodeled Bhakti Café.

“Even if you’re a vegetarian, you killed the vegetable too,” Mr. Timm said. “You paid the guy who sold it, but where’s the retribution to the Earth?” The chanting avoids “karmic debt” with the idea of giving back to the Earth and to Lord Krishna.

“Karma-free food is transformative,” he said, “like a sacramental food. This is a way we’re uplifting the community.”

Gadadhara Pandit Dasa, another Krishna monk, elucidated further. He serves as the first Hindu chaplin for NYU and Columbia University and teaches classes in subjects ranging from cooking to an introduction to the Bhagavad Gita.

“This is where food meets spirituality,” he said. “People fall in love with our food—some divine qualities are being taken on by it.”

Although the café may be struggling, the Bhakti Center in which it is housed draws a steady crowd to its temple and weekly seminars. There are plans for yoga studios in the building. On a recent visit, the diverse array of devotees included a sassy Venezuelan film producer, a New Jersey mother and her baby, an elderly Indian woman, and a young bearded man who looked like depictions of Jesus.

“This is a cultural center and a gateway to Vedic spirituality,” Mr. Pandit said. “The idea is that people enter through the café, like a Vedic clubhouse.”

The Bhakti Café
25 First Avenue (near Houston)

Have you eaten at Bhakti Café? Do you have any advice for the new business?

This post has been changed to correct information in the photo captions.

DSC_2949Meredith Hoffman The menu at the café lists “karma-free” foods, redeemed by monks through the act of chanting.