ORLANDO, Fla. – Vinay Rama — the CEO of Mandala Holdings, which owns Lime Fresh Mexican Grill — has been working in the service industry his whole life.
“Factually, frankly, I started my career when I was born in the sense that my father owned a motel in Antioch, Tennessee,” Rama said. “It was a Best Western. Obviously, I was too young at the time. But by the time I was like 5 or 6, I was making beds and putting up shower curtains and filling the coke machines at the motel.”
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After years of working in his family’s motel, and even living in it for a time, Rama’s parents sent him to live in India.
“I was sent to India at the age of 12. They put me on a plane in Atlanta with a teddy bear and 48 hours later I was in India at this boarding school,” he said.
It was there that he ended up with his first paid job, again working in housekeeping at a hotel.
“My first paid job was at (16 years old) in India, and I think it was like 800 rupees a week, which is like $16 a week. Obviously, relatively, it was pretty good,” he said.
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For Rama, the best part of this new work experience was working with people who did not share his life experiences.
“I was working with people that had never slept on a bed, or that never had a chair in their house. So to arrange a chair or to make a bed was a training process that was a lot more amplified than training somebody in the states who might be low income, but at least they know what a bed is,” he said.
It helped him learn how to explain the expectations of customers to people he was working with, a skill that would serve him well when training future employees.
After leaving India, Rama came back to the U.S. to further his education.
“I went to school, formerly got trained in hotel management and real estate finance at Cornell for four years and then joined an investment bank,” Rama said. “And so that’s when I got a sophisticated capital education.”
With this new education under his belt, Rama started Mandala Holdings, a hospitality investment platform that operates hotels and motels around Florida.
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His business acumen then led to a friend approaching him about buying into Lime Fresh Mexican Grill.
“A friend of mine called me in 2017. And said... ‘I’m in Arts and Sciences, you’re in hotel, you’re better off assessing this deal than I am,’” Rama said. “I’m like, ‘I don’t know, restaurants that well. I mean, I have an ecosystem of people I know that know, restaurants, but I’m in hotels hardcore.’”
The chain was started in Miami and eventually bought by Ruby Tuesdays. Lime Fresh saw a rapid expansion and an equally fast contraction of its business.
“I looked at it, I said, ‘this is pretty good.’ I mean, it’s a Mexican fast, casual (restaurant). It’s small. And what piqued my interest is, frankly, the numbers,” Rama said.
He was happy with the opportunity and decided to bite. Eventually, he even bought out his partners so that he could have more control over the brand.
“Again, (being) opportunistic led me into it and fast forward to today — I’m very happy we made the deal,” Rama said.
Now he is looking forward to opening two more Lime Fresh restaurants in the next year and continuing to grow the brand overall. He is also focused on the experience of his workers at his restaurants.
“Associate experience is the key to the game. You take care of your associates,” Rama said.
On the latest episode of Florida Foodie, Rama shares more of the story of how he became an “accidental restauranteur.” He also shares more about his plans for the future of Lime Fresh Mexican Grill.
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Florida Foodie is a bi-weekly podcast from WKMG and Graham Media that takes a closer look at what we eat, how we eat it and the impact that has on us here in Florida and for everyone, everywhere. Find new episodes on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher or wherever you download your favorite podcasts.
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