“We are proud to be born in Mill Valley,” longtime local entrepreneur Andy Mercy says of Dabba, which he calls “a combination of the bold, intricate flavors of India (and other places) with the fresh and healthy sensibilities of Northern California.” Mercy launched the business a year ago and has made strides over that time, creating a Dabba food truck that allowed he and chef Walter Abrams to test and develop the menu. They plan to open their first Dabba restaurant at 71 Stevenson Ave. in the SF's Financial District in April.
Dabba’s origin traces back to Avatar’s, the Indian restaurant that the late Avatar Ubhi opened in Sausalito in 1989 and is best known locally for the India-meets-Mexico cuisine at Avatar's Punjabi Burritos shop that opened in Mill Valley seven years later. Avatar’s, which also includes locations in Larkspur and Fairfax, is owned by Ashok Kumar, his wife Saru and Kumar’s sister, Kala Ubhi.
“The original inspiration was the food, plain and simple,” says Mercy, a former president of the Mill Valley Library Foundation board. “But just as importantly was the desire to provide healthier options for people who are eating on the go. It was the philosophical meeting the culinary.”
For many years, Avatar’s in Sausalito provided a near-weekly lunch to Angel Points, Mercy’s software firm that sought to help large companies engage in corporate social responsibility (CSR) movement. When he sold the business in 2011, Mercy approached Kumar, who he’d gotten to know quite well over the years, about the idea for Dabba, which means “lunchbox” in Hindi and lends itself to the tagline “a little Dabba’ll do ya.”
“He was very excited right away,” Mercy says.
“It’s a great idea,” says Kumar. “I’ve known Andy a long time, and it’s a great way to bring our food to more people.”
The first step was actually writing down the recipes Avatar’s had been using for decades, as they’d never done so.
“There was a little bit of anthropological work to do so that we could reproduce them,” Mercy says.
Mercy then found Abrams, the Michelin-rated chef whose background includes stints at Bay Area stalwarts like The French Laundry and Spruce. “He’s an amazing guy and he fell in love with Avatar’s and our concept,” Mercy says. “Having a chef on board who I knew could produce the food just as well if not better was important – that was critical.”
Mercy raised money from a number of local investors, including some of the partners of Mill Valley Labs. He says he drew on his experience running Angel Points in developing the business, specifically in being “agile,” the software industry mantra of being nimble, responsive, keeping things simple and welcoming change.
“For us, it was about not spending a ton of money up front, figuring out quickly whether you have something and continuing to iterate on on it,” Mercy says. “The truck was our opportunity to be agile, taking the food right to our customers and getting feedback.”
That meant incorporating fresh local and organic ingredients and adjusting the menu, focusing on Indian-inspired bowls, and burritos and tacos made with paratha flatbread, while largely “staying very true to the foundation of Avatar’s,” Mercy says.
With the truck serving up Dabba's “fast food made really slow” at private events and food truck hubs like Off the Grid and SoMa StrEat Food Park, the next piece for the Dabba team was finding the right physical space in the increasingly expensive San Francisco real estate market.
The space at 71 Stevenson – between First and Second, and Market and Mission streets – is “a great fit,” Mercy says, and began renovating it last month.
The 2,000-square-foot restaurant will focus heavily on the fast-paced lunchtime and post-work crowd on a block that’s become a foodie alley with fellow neighbors Louie's Bar and Uno Dos Tacos, as well as longtime dim sum standby Yank Sing. Dabba will have seating for 30 people inside and another 30-40 outside, Mercy says. Because of Dabba’s location, and Mercy’s experience running a company that relied heavily on Avatar’s combination of service, speed and deliciousness, a big piece of the business will be catering.
The 411: Dabba is set to open its first restaurant at 71 Stevenson Street in San Francisco in April. More info.