ST. PETERSBURG, FL — A South St. Petersburg Indian and Pakistani restaurant has expanded from grab-and-go meals in a grocery store to a full daily buffet for lunch and dinner.
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Chef and owner Mehreen Fayyaz launched Naan Boti & Chai Shai, 908 22nd Street S., three years ago in the Deuces neighborhood.

At first, the location primarily offered grocery items, Indian spices and homemade sauces, as well as meals to go, but she dreamed of opening a full restaurant in the area.

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“I always wanted to expand to just a restaurant, where people don’t feel like they’re having a grocery store experience while going to dinner,” she told Patch.

Fayyaz has been in the food service industry for about 12 years, owning and operating restaurants in Tampa and Orlando, as well as working as a catering chef who also offered prepared meals.

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She’s cooked her entire life, though, learning traditional scratch kitchen techniques from her mother, an herbalist, and, especially, from working side-by-side with her grandmother to cook for the family.

“I use techniques I inherited from my grandmother. I was always a helper for her when she made her food,” she said. “Cooking in clay pots — an ancient slow-cooking method — and the combination of ayurvedic spices I use, they react differently when combined with different spices and benefit your body.”

Growing up in Punjab, Pakistan, food was integral to her culture, Fayyaz added. “I love to serve and feed people because of it. We would have these big parties and it was all about food.”

She moved to St. Petersburg about three years ago without knowing much about the area.

“I fell in love with it,” she said. “The energy I felt about St. Pete was amazing. It’s all into art and yoga and culture. I feel the energy. St. Pete has everything. It’s a city, but I would say it’s like heaven, a little piece of heaven I would say.”

She was surprised, though, that there wasn’t much of a Pakistani or Indian community in the city and not many options for Indian food.

So, she made plans to open a grocery store and eatery. The business’ opening happened to coincide with the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, a time when many businesses were forced to close their doors and people were out of work because of the virus.

Rather than let the uncertainty of the pandemic deter her, she stepped up early on to feed her new community during this difficult time.

“I literally started in pandemic times and what really helped me to keep going was I was providing free food to people in the community,” Fayyaz said. “Still, today, I have an open-door policy. If you don’t have money, it’s on us, or you can put your own price on it. My aim is to feed anyone and everyone. We all feel hungry the same way. We’re all human.”

When the space next to her grocery store became available in recent months, she jumped at the chance to expand Naan Boti & Chai Shai.

The restaurant, which is open daily for lunch and dinner, offers a full buffet, serving vegan and vegetarian dishes alongside gluten-free-, low-carb-, paleo- and keto-friendly options.

Her goal is to bring nutritious food made from scratch to the community.

“My concept is, basically, I’m not like a typical Indian restaurant. I went to school and my background is in food and nutrition. My aim has always been to serve the people and that’s my intention,” Fayyaz said. “Whatever we put on the table, that’s what the intention is all about. It’s fresh and made mostly with clean ingredients.”

She’s expanding the business’ grocery store, as well, adding more items, such as a freezer aisle, marinated foods and international spices, and more ready-to-eat food. Down the road, she also hopes to launch a food truck.

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