Seated behind the wheel of his gray 2014 Audi Allroad, Biju Thomas pulls up to a Denver stoplight. The founder of Biju’s Little Curry Shop picks up his phone and scans his texts. There are questions about the price of chicken, which plates to use for a pending photo shoot, who’s going to deliver to-go orders, and an alert about running out of onions. With one eye on the light, the 46-year-old madly answers the messages.
Thomas, who launched his popular fast-casual curry shop two years ago this month, never intended to open a restaurant. In the past, he’d sold wine, worked the register at TJ Maxx, cooked for Lance Armstrong and the RadioShack cycling team, mopped floors, written best-selling cookbooks, made toast for the elderly, raced bikes, worked construction, washed dishes, engineered wearable technology for the bike and ski industry, and cooked in at least a dozen kitchens.
But Thomas, who was born in South India’s Kerala, was tired of Americanized Indian food defining his native country’s cuisine. For many, going out for Indian conjures up images of saag paneer, chicken tikka masala, and naan served from the buffet. “Everyone is feeding people the same bullshit stereotypical food,” Thomas says. That’s not what he grew up eating: South Indian dishes are lighter, less cream-based, and often vegan and gluten-free. He recognized the chance to reboot Indian food in the States, freshen it up, give it more dimension, and make it more fun. Never mind that he had no idea how to do any of this on a large scale. “I tend to say ‘yes’ too much, more than I should,” he says with a characteristic shrug. “I throw my hat in the ring before I know how to do it.”
Eventually, the light turns green. Mid-text, Thomas tosses his phone onto the passenger seat and hits the accelerator.
Twenty minutes before a pop-up dinner for 200 at the Little Nell in Aspen, Thomas is sipping a vodka soda in the lounge of the swanky hotel. Earlier in the day he’d cycled Independence Pass with Tour de France vets George Hincapie and Christian Vande Velde; then he spent the afternoon prepping for the dinner. Thomas made the curry sauces and everything complicated in Denver to bring with him, but he still has two details to figure out: a vegetarian entrée and, if there’s a request, how to make his curries less spicy. Meanwhile, there are diners with garlic allergies (a fundamental ingredient in Indian food) and vegan preferences. He takes a long drink, pulls the top off of a plastic cup filled halfway with ice water, and dumps in what remains of his cocktail. Then he’s off to the kitchen.
With the hotel’s seasoned crew backing him up, the jeans-clad Thomas, who has swapped his usual T-shirt for a navy button-down embroidered with the restaurant’s logo, just has to nail the final details and show the line how to plate his dishes. They’ll take care of the rest. Many of the items—chicken wings, which are like an Indian rendition of Nashville hot chicken; curried snapper; lamb kofta; saffron rice; lentils; samosas; and a variety of sauces—will find their ways onto Biju’s menu in Denver.
When Thomas debuted Biju’s Little Curry Shop at 26th and Walnut streets in RiNo in December 2014, he tapped the fast-casual trend and kept things simple. (With the exception of specials, there are just four bowls on the menu, each customizable to a degree, and all are balanced in terms of protein, fat, and carbohydrates.) But the blueprint extended far beyond a single restaurant: Thomas saw the chance to launch a brand that would ultimately transcend the eatery. Even before serving his first customer, Thomas was already working on a second location and landing a deal with Whole Foods Market’s global execs for Biju’s to become the chain’s first in-store, chef-driven concept.
That last partnership was key because Thomas intends for Biju’s to be a launch pad for an array of Indian spices, simmer sauces, flatbreads, and grab-and-go beverages that he plans to roll out nationwide. “We don’t want to be the Chipotle of the Indian space; we want to be more extensive,” Thomas says. “We’re in Whole Foods to demo our product, introduce our product, and take it to Middle America.”
Less than a year and a half after Biju’s Little Curry Shop entered the Denver market (and, according to Thomas, became profitable virtually overnight, a rarity in the restaurant world), Thomas debuted a second restaurant at Tennyson Street and 43rd Avenue in the Berkeley neighborhood. Two weeks later, a mini Biju’s opened in Whole Foods on Pearl Street in Boulder, one of the grocery chain’s busiest stores.
When Thomas was a kid, he liked to pull things apart and put them back together. “All I wanted to do was invent stuff,” he says. “I’d tinker and figure things out. I’d innovate.” That skill set, valuable to a young boy living on his grandmother’s farm 90 minutes from the rest of the family, engendered a think-on-your-feet work ethic. The farm raised chickens, goats, and cows, and grew coconuts, cashews, mangos, pineapple, jackfruit, and coffee. There was no electricity and no running water, and all of the cooking was done over an open fire. Even the simplest task demanded many steps: A hot cup of coffee required collecting firewood, starting the fire, pulling water from the well, and heating it. The coffee beans had been harvested a year earlier, pitted, dried, and ground up.
Biju’s Little Curry Shop is an ode to the dishes Thomas grew up eating; Photo by Sarah Boyum
Years on the farm crystallized Thomas’ ability to think and adapt quickly. So did his travels to the United States. From ages three to six, he lived in a basement apartment near Sloan’s Lake with his dad, who was studying to be a minister at Colorado Christian Academy in Lakewood. When Thomas returned to India, he spoke English but no longer understood the local language. “I was an outsider in both countries,” he says, adding that he was sent to live on his grandmother’s farm because it was close to an English school. In 1980, when he was 10, Thomas, his father, his mother, and his five siblings moved to northwest Denver.
Thomas’ dad, who continued his ministry training, had a paper route, drove a school bus, and took a job as a janitor. At one time or another, all of the Thomas kids washed dishes and scrubbed floors to help make ends meet. Thomas got his first restaurant job as a dishwasher at the age of 15. By 16 he was a food runner at Cafe Giovanni. He had to race up and down three flights of stairs, but it was his first brush with fine dining, and he loved it. He studied the dishes he ferried to the dining room, asked the cooks about them, tasted when he could, and went home and tried to recreate what he’d seen. “My success is purely based on the mantra that you’ve gotta show up,” he says now. “That was instilled in me.”
In high school in the mid-1980s, Thomas began cycling. He was good enough to land on a local team sponsored by Crest toothpaste. His teammates included Jonathan Vaughters (who went on to compete in the Tour de France and later started the
Garmin pro cycling team, now known as the Cannondale-Drapac) and Robin Thurston (who co-founded mapmyfitness.com). Thomas often refers to the Outliers phenomenon; the book by Malcolm Gladwell examines the many coincidences that led to the success of great innovators like Bill Gates and Steve Jobs. “I read Outliers, and that’s like my life in the sports and cycling world,” he says. “[Cycling] got me tied into a community of people who intersect.”
Thomas enrolled in college at the University of Northern Colorado but dropped out during his sophomore year. He took his bike and a backpack and made his way to New Hampshire and Ohio, following friends and picking up jobs along the way. He returned to Denver years later and talked his way into kitchens so he could cook.
By 2007, Thomas was racing bikes and cooking full time at the avant-garde Swimclub 32, just blocks from the Denver home in which he grew up. Around that time, he attended a Christmas party at Vaughters’ house where he met Allen Lim, the director of sports science for the Garmin cycling team. The two, both of whom are first-generation immigrants, bonded immediately. They began trading training tips and talking about food as a means to optimize performance. Thomas, who believes his poor diet held him back from becoming a more successful racer, explained to Lim that he was adding pure glucose powder to his water bottles to help combat blood sugar spikes. Lim, who was living and racing in California, was experimenting in similar ways.
The conversations continued, and that chance meeting proved fortuitous: Within a year, Lim hired Thomas to cook for Team RadioShack and Lance Armstrong, who after a hiatus had returned to cycling to seek his eighth Tour de France title.
On the road, Lim and Thomas slept in an RV and showered in pro cyclist Levi Leipheimer’s hotel room when he was out on his bike. They didn’t know it at the time, but between Thomas’ fundamental food knowledge and cooking skills and Lim’s precise command of exercise science, they were pioneering a new wave of sports nutrition—one that relied on scratch ingredients and real food to fuel athletes.
That partnership led to, among other things, the 2012 launch of Skratch Labs—a natural sports nutrition company that in 2015 was named by Inc. magazine as one of the fastest-growing companies in the United States—and three Feed Zone cookbooks, two of which have become international best-sellers. Looking back on that time, Thomas says he and Lim were simply making decisions in the moment. Call it laissez-faire, but it’s still the way Thomas approaches life and business. He likes to borrow a quote from his friend and pro cyclist Mark Cavendish: “I don’t see chaos; I see a bunch of problems I need to solve at a high rate of speed.”
The first time Thomas considered opening a restaurant was in 2007, when he was working at Swimclub 32. The owner, Chris Golub, had ties with Chipotle, and he encouraged Thomas to create a fast-casual Indian spot. Thomas wrote a business plan and a menu, but he sat on it. “People weren’t ready,” Thomas says. “It wasn’t until Slumdog Millionaire [which hit theaters in late 2008] that Indian became more mainstream.”
By 2014, the general public was ready, and Biju’s Little Curry Shop opened in RiNo on December 11. People flocked for the affordable prices and the bold flavors of spicy vindaloo and gingery masala, but they returned—sometimes two or three times a week—because the menu didn’t land them in a food coma. Thomas created each dish with flavor and performance in mind. Within its first week, the eatery was serving 150 people a day, seven days a week. Four months later, Guy Fieri of Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives came to town and filmed an episode at Biju’s. “I think people pick up when passion is genuine,” Vaughters says. “Biju did this out of passion, not out of his wallet.”
Whole Foods wanted in even before Biju’s opened (contacts at Skratch Labs connected the two entities). If Thomas would make food to their specifications—organic, all-natural, GMO-free, carefully sourced ingredients—the retailer agreed to pilot a mini Biju’s at the Pearl Street location in Boulder. Getting in front of 7,000 customers daily was a win for Thomas, but the arrangement also demonstrated a new way of thinking for Whole Foods. “It’s a different expression of our local program where we bring in local producers,” says Heather Larrabee, executive marketing coordinator for Whole Foods. “Before Biju, we hadn’t tested a chef or culinary star under that auspice.”
There have been challenges—namely, capturing shoppers’ attention—but the grocery store pilot, which sells about 200 bowls daily, has been deemed a success. In January, Biju’s will open in the Tamarac and Cherry Creek stores, and out-of-state expansion is slated to begin in 2018.
All of this means that Thomas’ phone is on the verge of a meltdown from the sheer number of texts, calls, and emails coming in. The pings reach a fever pitch anytime the Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives show re-airs. That’s when the franchising calls—from as far away as Australia—rush in. Add to that the board meetings, the catering deliveries (many of which Thomas does himself), the photo shoots with UberEats, the hiring, the training, the pop-ups, the time spent creating new dishes, the exploration of new locations, the fine-tuning of what already exists, and Thomas is awhirl, constantly attending to the chaos—and also looking forward. “There are a million moving parts, but I feel like we should be further along,” he says. Back in his car, Thomas glances at his phone, taps out a message, and takes off to the next red light.