Making it Work: The P.O.W.E.R. of Hope & Unity

Posted on September 10, 2020

What’s Your P.O.W.E.R. Move?

“My POWER move is to remain positive and calm. Almost everyone has been impacted by COVID. One can easily become anxious, depressed, and negative. However by focusing on what we have and being thankful, we continue to move forward. My son always tells people that I am the glue that keeps our family together as I never lose my temper and I focus on peoples’ strengths and not their weaknesses.”

What’s your P.O.W.E.R.ful Advice?

Stay strong. Do not despair and never give up hope. Stay united as in unity lies strength.”

Fidelity Bank’s slogan is “Here for Good”.

The double meaning is intentional of course: we are here to be a force for good in our community, and we are committed to being here for the long haul. This motto is true for the P.O.W.E.R. program as well, and we know that in order to live up to these goals we must be nimble, flexible and capable of making adjustments in response to changing community needs— and fast. The past few months have given us ample opportunity to show how agile we are, as we quickly and efficiently responded to COVID-19. In fact, we did such a good job that the P.O.W.E.R. program has actually grown during this period of chaos: we recently hit our milestone 1000th member! 

We’re exceptionally proud of everyone on our team who worked so hard, and made this accomplishment possible. Our team came through to provide help for our community when help was so desperately needed. Now, readers, you might be thinking to yourself “but this is the Personal P.O.W.E.R. blog, and it’s supposed to be about us P.O.W.E.R. members, not about the bank!”  You’re right! But, before introducing Pardeep Vilkhu, the subject of this month’s feature, we wanted to take a moment to acknowledge how much work goes in to pivoting a business. It’s HARD to suddenly stop and change directions, and when the stakes are high, it can be terrifying. As an owner of local dine-in restaurant Saffron NOLA, and its sister catering operation, Pardeep is one among many who have had to pivot or perish in an environment with so many important unknowns. 

We are sharing her story and her message of hope with you today because we know that recently, many of you have faced similar challenges. As the impacts of the pandemic drag on, perhaps we can all tap into Pardeep’s wisdom and skills to make this difficult and exhausting time a little less uncomfortable.

And, if you happen to be reading this at some point in the distant future, this is a story for everyone, no matter who— or when— you are. 

Pardeep Vilkhu is Vice President & Director of Operations at Saffron NOLA, the restaurant she co-owns with her husband, who is also the Executive Chef. In fact, the restaurant is really a whole family affair: the General Manager is Pardeep and Arvinder’s son Ashwin, who was just six months old when they immigrated to New Orleans from India. Ashwin also developed the bar program and provides ideas and expertise to help keep the menu fresh. Daughter Pranita helps with back office management, and Prantia’s fiancé has joined the family business as Manager. 

While the doors of their New Orleans location on Magazine Street opened in 2017, the family has been serving food to enthusiastic fans for 26 years. They started as a catering company, then expanded (gradually) to include dine-in. The choice to expand to dine-in was not an easy one— the demand from hungry customers was there, but Pardeep was reluctant to go all in on the restaurant lifestyle of long days and late nights. Besides, during the early days of their business Pardeep had a day job that she loved, working as a psychologist at a facility for developmentally disabled individuals. Eventually though, she retired from that career and at that point, the combined enthusiasm of her hungry fans and her enthusiastic family persuaded her to go all-in on the full time catering AND restaurant plan. 

Pardeep credits her equanimity leading the Saffron NOLA team through the myriad of challenges that 2020 has thrown her way (an equanimity that she brings to her personal life as well as to her business) as stemming from a combination of her naturally optimistic and warm personality, her training as a psychologist, and the years she spent in her first career working with developmentally disabled individuals.

Patience, compassion, and a hopeful outlook are deeply ingrained in her approach to her work and her relationships. It is perhaps natural then, that she refers often to the fact that Saffron is a family owned and operated business, and how the strength of those family ties impacts the choices that she and Arvinder make when it comes to issues that could impact the extended Saffron community, which includes their clientele as well as the members of the Saffron staff who are not Vilkhus. 

During those first shocking and disorienting days following the stay-home mandate, Pardeep was adamant that closing the restaurant was not an option because it would leave the entire staff jobless.

“I should say that I’m the one who said ‘we are going to stay open’” Pardeep recalls, “because I felt that our staff depends on the restaurant, their livelihood depends on how the restaurant is doing and for me, that was very important. You couldn’t just tell your staff ‘sorry, we’re closed. Bye.’” Accordingly, Saffron held a meeting with the entire staff, letting everyone know that that they still had jobs if they wanted them.  Working together, they found a way to make it work, developing a plan that would minimize risk without sacrificing jobs.  

The transition to an exclusively take-out model had to be made quickly— restaurants run on famously thin profit margins. But the effort proved to be worthwhile. Pardeep recalls that during the early days of the pandemic lock down “…all our clients wanted to support us. They were there for us, and it is just so heartening to know that people love us as a family and wanted us to stay open, and they have supported us ever since.” 

Throughout her interview for this feature, Pardeep made frequent references to her family; not just her children but her parents as well. Pardeep spent her childhood in Eldoret, Kenya, where her mother— the first woman in her family to have a job— worked as a school teacher. Her mother’s choice to work outside the home was one that was totally supported by her father. “My father always felt that a woman needs to be independent, needs to have an education, and needs to be self-sufficient; she cannot depend on any man for her livelihood.” And, while many women in Pardeep’s community didn’t work, she never doubted women’s potential to excel, to lead and to accomplish great things:  “in India, of course, you know, our Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi, was a woman” she notes, reflecting on her path to business ownership. 

Today, Saffron employs numerous women; their entire West Bank based prep kitchen is staffed by women, a fact that Pardeep is proud to note when speaking of her support for the Fidelity Bank P.O.W.E.R. program and mission.

And while, as of this writing, operations at the restaurant are far from normal, she speaks often of how grateful she is have loyal, hungry customers, eager for Saffron’s delicious food whether they’re dining in or taking out. Moreover, she notes, community programs like the Krewe of Red Beans’ Feed the Front Lines initiative, designed to support the people and businesses most grievously impacted by the economic and emotional fall out of the pandemic, have played important roles in keeping the fires burning in the Saffron kitchens.

Pardeep’s patience and calm approach to life and business has served her well. Someone with a less optimistic outlook might not have lasted in the hospitality industry after Saffron’s bumpy first catering gig: Pardeep and Arvinder were astonished to get a headcount of 200 instead of the anticipated 20 when they agreed to cook for a friend’s daughter’s first birthday party. Somehow, despite a lack of space, utensils, staff, and supplies Pardeep and Arvinder made it happen. They converted their garage into a makeshift catering kitchen, gathered their resources, and worked together to find a way.

This story is emblematic of the P.O.W.E.R.ful advice Pardeep has to share with our community; advice that feels especially meaningful today, but that is always applicable:

“Stay strong. Do not despair and never give up hope. Stay united as in unity lies strength.”

(Another important piece of advice from Pardeep? When you come to Saffron, order the lamb chops.)