Vimala Rajendran is the founder of the Curryblossom Foundation and chef and founder of Vimala’s Curryblossom Café in downtown Chapel Hill.
Vimala is a longtime activist for progressive causes including grassroots media, farmworker and restaurant worker rights, and environmental justice. Historian Marcie Cohen Ferris described Vimala Rajendran as “a truly important gatekeeper in our state’s food movement.”
Vimala has been cooking in the South, in Chapel Hill, North Carolina since 1985. She is the chef and founder of Vimala’s Curryblossom Café in downtown Chapel Hill. Her restaurant has beeing serving homecooked Indian food from her homestate of Kerala and from her beloved Mumbai as well as other parts of India since 2010. Vimala’s has been voted best Indian restaurant by INDY Best every year since the beginning, and she was awarded Best Chef in 2018 by INDY Best.
Vimala believes that delicious, wholesome food is a human right. With the business motto of “Vimala cooks, everyone eats,” no one is ever turned away at her restaurant.
Chef Vimala Rajendran sees her restaurant, Vimala’s Curryblossom Cafe, as a form of food justice ministry. A patron who nominated Vimala’s Curryblossom Cafe for the Pauli Murray Human Relations Award stated: “I am nominating Vimala’s Curryblossom Café for this award because of the compassion thatpermeates the restaurant and is inspiring to behold. She and her staff give so much of themselves with joy and enthusiasm and in return receive love, respect and loyalty from the many community members they touch.” Vimala Rajendran exemplifies a social entrepreneur who reaches out and grasps for imaginative solutions in service of the common good. Her microloan-funded family-run restaurant, Vimala’s Curryblossom Café, is a food justice experiment, helping build a new South by inviting families, in hardship and in health, to break bread together across difference.
Supported by a humble jar on the counter welcoming donations, Vimala’s Curryblossom Café has served thousands of people regardless of their ability to pay, ensuring that when Vimala cooks, everybody eats. Vimala recognizes nutritious, delicious food as a human right and as a form of preventative health care. She sources her ingredients from small local family farms and prepares everything from scratch while insisting on keeping prices affordable for her guests. Last year, while participating in Orange County’s pilot composting program, her restaurant composted over 11 tons of waste that would have otherwise ended in the landfill.
Vimala is a proud founding member of RAISE, Restaurants Advancing Industry Standards Everywhere, the high-road employer national restaurant owner’s roundtable founded by the Restaurant Opportunities Center. Through RAISE, Vimala helps lobby for the Fair Minimum Wage Act. Vimala’s Curryblossom Café offers a diverse team of workers $12 hourly base pay plus tips ($2.13 base pay is the industry standard). Workers are encouraged to learn new skills and work in multiple roles. Workers eat shift meals on the house and pay 50% for their bill off-shift. Through arrangements with Piedmont Health Center, Carrboro Family Vision, Dr. Chas Gaertner’s NC Chiropractic, and massage therapists at the Wellness Alliance, Curryblossom workers enjoy as-needed care.
Attention is put towards proper health and safety training, and on the rare occasion that a worker is injured, Vimala’s Curryblossom Café pays for their medical care. Sick workers are encouraged to stay home and rest, with sick leave pay when needed. When workers or their families experience emergencies and have to miss work, they are not penalized. Some of these steps may seem like common sense policy for treating workers with dignity, but they are uncommon practices in the largely exploitative restaurant industry.
Vimala began serving meals from her home kitchen in 1992. The women in Vimala’s neighborhood encouraged her to offer take-out meals from her
back door to raise funds to increase her independence and leave an abusive marriage. The community dinners burgeoned into large, multiracial, and intergenerational weekly events, never turning anyone away regardless of their ability to contribute financially. Because of her outspoken courage as a domestic violence survivor, Vimala is often quietly sought by poor and immigrant survivors as a source of refuge, and she helps connect them to an underground railroad of support.
Vimala’s commitment to social justice work is exemplified in her tireless labor to improve Chapel Hill-Carrboro public schools and her later role as co-founder and board member at The People’s Channel, a community access television and media justice organization. Her local roots run deep and her relationships cross myriad issues and barriers. From feeding over 4000 peaceful demonstrators at Fayetteville’s Fort Bragg at the height of the war on Iraq, to handing out cups of hot chai to racial and economic justice marchers over the years, to catering uplifting meals at hundreds of social and environmental justice meetings and conferences, Vimala’s gift continues to nourish and inspire. However in Vimala’s own words, “I learned community organizing and how to take a stand alongside my children, Rajeev, Anjali, and Manju.”