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Sammy Akuthota and his parents, Satya founders Swamy and Padmaja Akuthota. (Photo: supplied)
Sammy Akuthota and his parents, Satya founders Swamy and Padmaja Akuthota. (Photo: supplied)

KaiFebruary 17, 2022

Sammy Akuthota on being a grown-up Takeout Kid

Sammy Akuthota and his parents, Satya founders Swamy and Padmaja Akuthota. (Photo: supplied)
Sammy Akuthota and his parents, Satya founders Swamy and Padmaja Akuthota. (Photo: supplied)

Sammy Akuthota grew up in his parents’ South Indian restaurants. More than two decades later he’s become a key pillar in the original Satya operation – and he’s putting his own spin on things.

Auckland suburb Sandringham is famous for its South Asian influence. The art deco buildings lining the village centre are filled with halal butchers, spice shops, grocers, regional Indian restaurants and a Sri Lankan bakery. Most hours of the day, the village bustles with people. You’d be forgiven for not realising that what looks like a walkway between a restaurant and a grocer called Smart Food Bazaar is in fact the entrance to popular bar and restaurant Satya Chai Lounge. The most noticeable signage above the entrance says “Satya spice, chai and organic shop”. 

As you walk down the corridor to enter, beer cans tied to the ceiling hover overhead. It’s an unassuming place, serving Indian street food menu, craft beers and cocktails. Regulars call the it “Sammy’s” after the owner, Sammy Akuthota.

Sammy opened Chai Lounge under relatively cheeky conditions. In 2016, in secret, while his parents – who own the restaurant next door – were overseas, Sammy transformed what he saw as an underutilised space behind the restaurant into Chai Lounge. With an initial budget of just $800, he furnished the shop with recycled materials. Ceilings and walls were draped with coffee sacks, old beer crates became seating and borrowed plants filled the spaces left over. 

Sammy grew up scrubbing dishes, garnishing plates and waiting tables in Satya, an Auckland restaurant institution. Other than a stint as a bicycle mechanic when he was 16, Sammy has stuck with hospitality. It’s an industry he adores. His decision to open Chai Lounge is a reflection of Sammy’s undivided love for the restaurant industry.

His parents founded their first restaurant more than 20 years ago. Now in his 30s, Sammy has remained a key figure in the family operation, which has grown to include three Satya outlets around the city, in Sandringham, Great North Road and Grafton, and two Satya Chai Lounges, in Sandringham and on Karangahape Road.

Sammy, his younger brother and parents were all born in India, in the south-eastern state Andhra Pradesh. The family moved to New Zealand in February 1996, “more or less by accident”, his father Swamy Akuthota says. 

From left; Sammy, Viraaj, Swamy and Padmaja Akuthota in the early days of Satya. (Image: supplied)

Swamy says they couldn’t have launched Satya without the support of the community. Back then, the landlords of their home in Auckland suburb Mt Roskill were from Gujarat in the north of India. The two families would exchange food; the landlords were fans of the Akuthotas’ dosa. Word of their delicious masala dosa, filled with spiced potato and onion mash and served with sambar and coconut chutney, spread around the temple that both families attended. So much so that the family was visited by a delegation from the temple asking if they’d sell dosas to visitors coming to pray at Navaratri, a Hindu festival that takes place over 10 days in November. 

Despite having no professional background in hospitality, they agreed. It wasn’t an easy task. “We were not prepared for the scale,” recalls Swamy. There were four queues on the first day, and each line was “about a quarter kilometre long”. With the help of the Navaratri committee, others in the community, and Sammy and his young brother, the family pulled through and the event was a success.

With Swamy unable to find a job in his specific field of electronic engineering, because “that industry is non-existent in New Zealand,” the family took heed of their triumphant dosa operation at the temple. “Without having any knowledge in the hospitality business, we thought we’d start something from scratch,” he says. 

The Akuthota family opened their first restaurant in a two-storey shop space on Hobson Street in central Auckland in the summer of 1999. 

The name they chose, Satya, has layers of meaning, explains Swamy. You could write pages and pages and still not get the full definition, but in short it means truth. The name was suggested by a religious leader from their temple. “As an obedient husband, I asked my wife what I should do,” says Swamy. Her mother’s name was Satya, so it fit on both sides. 

Although “it is very, very difficult to maintain those godly standards,” Swamy says, “as far as it is possible, we try to maintain the true nature of satya in our business”.

It’s a dedication to truth expressed through their food: by not using artificial ingredients or preservatives and, most importantly, maintaining the traditional principles of food from their homeland. Says Swamy: “despite thousands of years of invasion, the southern Indian cuisine relatively maintained its own truthfulness and intactness.”

When the restaurant first opened Sammy was 11 and his brother was eight. Back then, the family lived in the space above the restaurant. It was especially tough in those early days, says Swamy. It took both compromise and struggle from the entire family for Satya to establish itself.

Growing up, Sammy says the restaurant lifestyle was all he knew so he enjoyed it more than anything else. “I had a commercial kitchen to play with and I loved cooking so it was a lot of fun for me,” he says. Back then he’d help out with jobs in the kitchen, garnishing dishes or making simple entrees. When he was older he moved on to waiting tables.

His mates loved coming over because they could eat whatever they wanted, and were able to experience the buzz of working in the restaurant together – an activity they’d call “the curry mission”. 

“My friends still joke about when they used to come to stay the night,” says Sammy. “The next day they used to smell like curry, all their clothes would smell like curry, their bag would smell like curry, so we came up with the term ‘curryfication’.”

The only downside Sammy remembers is that when friends would organise to hang out on Fridays and Saturdays, he “wouldn’t really be able to kind of join them, which was always kinda crap”. 

The decision to open Chai Lounge came from wanting to put his own spin on the well-oiled machine that is the Satya brand. Sammy says he “used that as a platform where I could just kind of showcase a whole different style of Indian cuisine”. 

He was also keen to extend what he saw as a fairly narrow perception of Indian food in New Zealand – which back then at least, was limited to a meal of curry, rice, naan and a Kingfisher. “I was wanting to do something a little bit different for ages,” he says “because in a way I wanted to express what Indian food meant to me.”

The Chai Lounge concept came from an amalgamation of New Zealand’s rustic bach aesthetic and dhabas, ubiquitous roadside eateries in India serving quick meals – “these are the kinds of places that I really loved hanging out at,” says Sammy. Word soon spread through the Auckland grapevine of this new mysterious, dimly lit bar in Sandringham.

His parents’ initial scepticism grew into support when they saw how popular the combination of spicy shared plates and an array of craft beers and cocktails were with customers. Two years later, they handed over the keys to their Karangahape Road restaurant to be converted into a second Chai Lounge. The gleam of Chai Lounge’s early days hasn’t faded: it remains a fixture on lists of Auckland’s top restaurants and bars. More importantly, customers still love it. Take a peek inside either location and you’re sure to find a happy crowd of patrons, perched on beer crates and sharing plates of nibbles between sips of cocktails.

Asked if there was any other career he would want, Sammy says it would have been an Formula One driver – “but I don’t know if that was ever going to happen anyway”. 

After 23 years in an industry he was practically born into, Sammy has become an Auckland hospo figurehead, repping both restaurants his parents opened and the two started by him. Thanks to the know-how he’s amassed over those two decades, he’s naturally taken the reins of a large chunk of the Satya and Chai Lounge operations. Even so, you’ll still find him scrubbing dishes, garnishing plates and waiting tables when needed, just as he did back when he was a takeout kid.

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