Premlata Natural Foods

Farouk and Sally Gongee outside Premlata Natural Foods. It is Holy Name, Washington, D.C., and exceptionally good company. The foggy night has brought me indoors where I find comfort in oak and corduroy. The D.C. community has captured my heart with an "Ah, yes, this feels like home."

It isn't hard to feel at home when you're greeted with good cheer and good service at Premlata Natural Foods over pita bread and a great avocado salad. Nor can you overlook the air of warm welcome when Sally Gongee entreats you with, "Great, come on over, only I warn you that the guys are playing poker late tonight." The poker enthusiast and ball of energy behind Pretnlata Natural Foods is Farouk Gongee. You may remember seeing him running along the banks of the Ganges River if you were there. Besides a momentous sojourn with Guru Maharaj Ji in India, I remember writing to Farouk in Beirut, Lebanon, during the time of Millennium. Besides coordinating Mission activities in Beirut, Farouk helped make it possible for other Lebanese premies to attend the festival in Houston. It is amazing the ways, wheres and whens that we see each other again.

So now Premlata Natural Foods is a one year old business. Farouk and Sally are successfully running two stores and the potential for a third remains open. Farouk employs twelve people. I spoke with Christian, a premie who works there. "I love my jobs," she said. (Christian also counsels for the Florence Crittendon program for unwed mothers.) "This is perfect for me. I love meeting the people who come in. I love working with good food." Christian's attitudes were shared by her co-worker.

Farouk and I made a little extra time in our day for the following interview:

What reservations did you have about starting Premlata?

Actually the only reservation I had regarded whether or not I would be able to handle the legal affairs of the business properly. Other than that I had no reservations at all.

What was your primary motive for going into business?

Well, I wanted to be in the premie community and I wanted a job that Sally and I would enjoy that would support us financially. I wanted to provide employment opportunities for community premies and I wanted to provide a place for community premies to come and enjoy good food and a peaceful atmosphere. Actually, that last point has not really been borne out by our experience. The first two weeks we were open, premies accounted for ten percent of our customers; now premies account for only three percent of our customers. This is really good when you realize that this type of food operation has enough appeal to support itself without needing to be located in a large premie community.

If you had it to do over again, what would you do differently?

We have two stores. The first is located in an attractive shopping mall and the second is in a fairly large office building with a few other shops on the first level. Were I to start again, I'd have both stores in a first level location in a large office building and not go into a shopping mall. Malls charge a premium rent because it is considered that the attractiveness of the mall is a big plus for your business. But in our case, we have been an attraction for the mall. In the second location, the office building, we are not paying such a premium rent.

What are some of the high points, some of the memorable experiences you have had in getting Premlata Natural Foods going?

It is so exciting to see the type of people that come. The average businessman is our main clientele. He is interested in our food; he likes the atmosphere. It is exciting to see it do well financially. The most exciting thing, though, was that with the second store we had more space and time to invest so that we were able to do it more creatively.

Farouk, you have mentioned a couple of times to me that you were helping two ladies set up a similar operation. How did your meeting with them come about?

Since we've opened, a large number of people have inquired about setting up similar operations elsewhere. I've been approached about franchising, etc. I've been very cautious about responding to any of these inquiries for two reasons: First, I don't want to progress at a faster rate than I can handle. Second, we have the name Premlata, and we want to he sure that anything involving that name is done as tastefully as possible.

Once these two ladies came in, loved the food and wanted to set up a similar operation (note: it will carry a different name). I was very impressed with them and they definitely have the financial backing for the endeavor, so I agreed to work with them. I haven't given out any of our secret recipes, but I am helping them with a lot of the business aspects of setting up and charging them a standard counselor fee for my help. So jar it is working very well.

Something else that has come up recently is a plan to include food education and nutrition as part of the health center that, hopefully, will evolve out of the doctors' practice here. I would love to be involved in that.

Upon entering the Air Rights Building on Wisconsin Avenue in Bethesda, you will find Premlata Natural Foods just beyond the elevators. You can order a huge salad or sandwich and juice, top it off with baklava and sit down to a mellow lunch among pine, greenery and photography by Pierre Ruffieux. In between the two restaurants is the medical practice of Dr. John Horton and Dr. Bob Hallowitz (covered in a previous issue of DT). Tuesdays and Fridays introductory satsang is held there and occasionally out of those in attendance, someone first bumped into a premie at Premlata Natural Foods or had their hair cut by Pierre the photographer is a barber too.

Farouk and Sally's restaurant isn't run simply on health and good food, it's run on premies cooperating in service to Guru Maharaj Ji.

- Sunni Smith

Divine Times, February 1977    21