San Rafael’s Very Own Pal
March 14, 2019
I walk across the Central San Rafael train tracks in the cold morning, seeking refuge from the intense wind. I reach for the door-handle of Lotus Restaurant in San Rafael and the warmth immediately hits me. Before the scent of Indian spice can reach my nose, Surinder “Pal” Sroa engulfs me in a large hug, despite the fact that it has been years since he last saw me. Like any true Indian, the first words that come out of his mouth are, “You want something to eat? Want some chai?”
Although Pal emigrated from India when he was a youthful 17-year-old for better opportunities, it is quite clear that India remains in his heart. And it’s not only because you can hear him firing orders to his employees in Hindi or that the restaurant always has Indian classical music playing in the background, but because he embodies the sense of selflessness that is at the root of Indian culture. When asked what keeps him going as he and the restaurant continue to age, Pal responds enthusiastically, “I like people and I think that people drive me. I see so many kids and some of the kids sit with me while their parents are eating. So, it’s like the second or third generation coming to the restaurant. That’s my motivation.”
It was a drive to serve the people of the Marin County community that pushed Pal to open Lotus Restaurant in the first place: “I went to one Indian restaurant with my wife and my in-laws and I did not like the experience, so I told my wife, Linda, that I’m going to open an Indian restaurant. And that’s when all this happened in 1988.” Pal opened his restaurant with a focus on top-notch service and high-quality ingredients, both of which are integral in the process of appeasing the Marin demographic.
Since Lotus has none of its food delivered to maintain freshness, Pal starts a typical day 6:30-7:00 to pick up food from the many local farmers and businesses that supply ingredients for Lotus. Owning three separate Lotus franchises (one is managed by his 24 year-old-son), but mainly operating in the San Rafael one, Pal oversees lunch and dinner at the restaurant, often returning home to his wife, Linda, after 10 pm. Working long hours is exhausting for most, but hard work has always been the basis of Pal’s life.
The youngest of 10 siblings, Pal worked on his family’s farm and contributed to his family-owned grocery store, which has been operating in India since 1920. “So, you know in India, when all the siblings live together, I don’t know about your household, the youngest one gets beaten up more than anyone else,” Pal explained. Being surrounded by family in every moment of his life is a quite fitting background for the people-person Pal, but he needed some time on his own to figure his life out.
Because work for his family’s business took away his time from studying, Pal decided he needed to explore opportunities elsewhere: “I decided to explore myself. I left India and went to Dubai. Then from there, I went to Libya. Libya to Greece. From Greece to Jordan. Jordan to Italy. Then I joined a ship and when the ship came to the United States, I landed here.” Pal especially noted that his days living throughout the Middle East and Europe were those filled with harsh manual labor, but were moments that built his aptitude for hard work and his love for people.
When Pal came to the United States in 1983, he knew little to no English, but still found himself able to jump into any job. Pal’s first job was a fryer at a donut shop. It was these late-night shifts where local teenagers who frequented the shop would teach him bits and pieces of the complex English language. From there, Pal dove headfirst into his job at Mollie Stone’s in Greenbrae, working his way up as the manager of the bakery. Pal claims that his 10 years at Mollie’s Stone “gave him a lot of experience” for dealing with the food aspect of the restaurant industry.
Some could make the conclusion that food has always been central to Pal’s life. From working on the family farm and in the family grocery store to donut frying and baking at Mollie Stones and finally to owning a restaurant. But again, Pal’s favorite aspect of owning the restaurant is providing a service, something he pours his heart and soul into: “We are a community restaurant. I support a lot of things. We do provide once a year a free meal to whole community day before Thanksgiving, which is around 1000-1500 people in two locations. And also every week, we do seniors meals where they come and pick up food one day. It’s about 40 seniors.”
After Pal and I finished our interview, he made sure I did not leave without showing me the pride and essences of his restaurant, which not so surprisingly have everything to do with providing the best experience for his customers. We weaved around the tables to the pantry, where he showed me his freshest ingredients. Then, beaming with pride, he rushed to the middle of the restaurant where he showcased his latest sustainability project: reusable metal takeout boxes. Realizing I was taking photographs, his eyes lit up and he directed me to his beloved “Please No Cell Phones” sign at the front of the restaurant. Pal’s strict no cellphone rule stresses the importance of human interaction and connection at his restaurant. As I began to leave the homely confines of the restaurant and brace the cold, he asked me one last time, “Are you sure you don’t want any food? Not even Paneer Tikka Masala, I know it’s your favorite.” Even though I had not personally spoken to Pal in a couple of years or so, he still remembered.
When asked how he came up with the name for the restaurant, Pal said, “So Linda came up with the name. Indian god and goddess sit on the Lotus. So, I thought this was would be appropriate.” Pal did not take the most conventional path to where he is today. He surely did not take the easy path. He learned how to conquer the world on his own, understood the benefits of hard work, and dedicated his life towards bringing others happiness. It is safe to say by putting the needs of others ahead of his own, Pal deserves to sit on his own Lotus.