Local restaurant to close after 16 years

Kali Persall,
Managing Editor

Saras Rao peers through the vintage blue and white-checkered curtains as a car pulls into the stained, overgrown parking lot of Curry Corner, one of three remaining shops in the dilapidated strip mall on Mission Boulevard in Hayward.

She recognizes 20-year Hayward resident and two-year customer Casey Lee enter the restaurant, and Rao immediately goes to work filling two styrofoam to-go boxes to the brim with rice, black-eyed peas, potatoes, curry chicken and pork. The third plate she packs to the brim is solely with meat for Lee’s corgi chihuahua dog, Sherman. “The dogs eat for free, the customers pay double,” she joked.

Rao has owned the Fijian food restaurant at this location in Hayward for the past 16 years; however, by the end of November, the cozy restaurant will close its doors for good. Rao decided to close because the building is in noticeable disrepair and little has been done by the landlord to address maintenance issues.

The building was ransacked multiple times by homeless people or thieves who cut the copper off of the outside pipes to sell, which has caused flooding in the kitchen, according to Rao. Rats and possums call the building home and the ceiling bulges with evidence of past water damage, which started ten years ago, according to Rao. Lee’s husband has fixed some of the holes in the walls on occasion during his spare time.

“Every morning before coming to work you have this feeling: what am I gonna see today? Is my kitchen flooded with another pipe?” said Rao. “It’s become a stress. What a terrible thing to happen to any human being that a bunch of people from nowhere break into a place you’ve been 16 years. Nobody is doing anything for this building. But all those good years here — I’m leaving with a smile.”

According to the city of Hayward, the building is owned by DNS Capital Partners, LLC. City officials confirmed that the site is scheduled for demolition and condominiums will be built in place, however a project itinerary has not yet been released to the public. Rao said she received a letter last year notifying her of the project.

Micah Hinkle, economic development manager for the city of Hayward told the Pioneer that one of the main challenges for restaurant owners looking to open in Hayward is finding the space. Hinkle said opening a restaurant is expensive and can cost between $300,000 and $500,000 to develop.

Rao said she decided to close instead of relocating because the process would be long, difficult and she is ready to retire.

“It’s too late, I’ll be 65 next week,” she said.

Eating at Curry Corner feels like eating in a grandmother’s kitchen. The walls and chairs are painted mustard yellow and pumpkin orange, a project undertaken by Rao and her daughter. A watermelon calendar hangs on the wall, the page still turned to August, next to a map of the Fiji Islands and a watercolor picture of Jesus Christ.

A collage of photos of her granddaughters who live in Fiji decorate the kitchen and the cash box is a stainless steel food prep tray. The payment method is cash only and there’s no official menu: customers eat whatever Rao decides to cook that day, which always costs $8.

“Whatever she makes, I eat,” said Lee. “I don’t even ask.”

There’s no particular formula or schedule to the fixed menu, Rao makes whatever she has on hand.

“We didn’t have eggplant last week so we’re going to have eggplant today,” said Rao.

Longtime customers have taken to Yelp and social media to express disappointment in the restaurant’s closing; however, Rao plans to host cooking lessons at her home in the future. The price will fluctuate, but right now she plans to charge $65 per person for a four to five-hour lesson.

“I’m gonna get her home number and ask her to cook for me,” Lee joked.

Rao was born in the Fiji Islands but moved to San Francisco as a young woman. She speaks four languages: Hindi, Fijian, Spanish and English. Cooking is second-nature for Rao, who learned how to cook at a young age on an old fashioned wooden kerosene stove.

“I can look at a piece of meat and know how much spice to put on it,” said Rao, who never uses a recipe.

Rao originally worked as a certified nursing assistant until she was 49 years old, when her daughter convinced her to make a career out of her cooking hobby and open her own business. The restaurant is staffed solely by Rao, who receives occasional help from her daughter.

Rao said the food contains no dairy, tomato paste or MSG, and Curry Corner is labeled on Yelp as a Vegan restaurant, even though they serve meat. That’s what drew fitness trainers Jake Vuolo, 24, and Quinzel Comer, 26, on a weekend road trip from San Diego, to the restaurant.

“He wanted to get some Sonic, but I just wasn’t feeling Sonic,” said Vuolo. “I wanted something a little bit cleaner in my body than some fast food. Those are some of the best potatoes I’ve ever had.”

The meat comes from a local butcher, the potatoes are homegrown — a gift from Rao’s friend at church — and the black-eyed peas come from a farmer’s market. Rao uses three to four fresh, basic spices like curry, turmeric and coriander in her cooking.

“Ma’am I don’t like curry,” Comer said to Rao. “I’m not a fan of curry, but this is good.”

Hinkle said that most businesses in Hayward, like Curry Corner, have a considerable lifespan in the city. While the restaurant industry in Hayward hasn’t experienced any more turnover than other areas, Hinkle acknowledged that things are changing.

Hinkle said Hayward’s ethnic food options reflect the diversity of the city, the sixth largest in the Bay Area. He’s found that many of the successful food options are small, family-owned businesses that offer unique, high quality products at affordable prices, rather than fast-food commercial establishments.

“You eat a dollar worth of food or you eat ten dollars worth of food,” said Rao. “It’s going into your body; you have to eat right. I can’t feed anybody anything that I won’t eat.”