News Makers 2017

On a magic night

Moondance’s meteoric rise from a hole-in-a-wall to a veritable tourism institution has an unlikely backstory

- SANGAM PRASAIN, Kathmandu

For a restaurant that began operation from a tiny straw hut, the fact that Moondance is now one of Pokhara’s highest taxpaying institutions is no short of a miracle. On a good day, the restaurant—located in the city’s prominent Lakeside district—draws over half a million rupees in business and features on the must-visit list of every domestic and international tourist who visits the Lake City.

Learning of Moondance’s meteoric rise from a hole-in-a-wall to a veritable tourism institution, one might be tempted to presume that its operator had ample resources to pump into the establishment—as is the norm for most upscale eateries.But Moondance Restaurant’s owner, Dorje Lama, has an unlikely story to tell; one that was fraught with poverty, hardship and the struggle against a debilitating mental illness.

Born in Khahare Pangu, a small village in Kavre district, Lama drew the short straw from birth. With his parents unable to afford even the most rudimentary formal education, he was forced to migrate to Kathmandu where he initially baby sat for a wealthy family, before finding his first job as a dishwasher in a small eatery.

Lama remembers being ambitious from early on, but circumstances pushed him from one menial job to another as he struggled to not just support himself in a demanding city but send back money to his family back home. And as one thing led to another, he eventually began waiting tables at a restaurant called Valentino, before moving to Pokhara to work at another now-defunct establishment, Tea Time Café.

“It was around this time that things gradually began to look up,” remembers Lama, “Moving back to Pokhara brought me in contact with a lot of tourists and this was when my ‘real education’ truly began.” At the time, the tail-end of the Hippe era had already begun to fade from Kathmandu.

In Pokhara, however, its reverberations continued. “They were normally barefoot, broke and sang all the time. We actually called them ‘gypsy’,” Lama says, “I started learning English listening to their songs. The Irish singer Van Morrison was my favourite.

I also learned my first lessons in what tourists were looking for in a restaurant—cheap, hygienic but a wide variety of foods—during this time.”

Having worked on-and-off in restaurants for over a decade, Lama finally mustered the courage to open up his own establishment in 1991, naming it after his favourite Van Morrison song—Moondance. At the time the restaurant was little more than a tiny straw hut but its tiny, cosy space drew heavily on the nostalgia of the 60s hippie era, making it a favourite among those still trickling into Pokhara tracing the bygone era. “The business was decent, but we struggled for a long time,” Lama says, “I had invested all my lifesavings into the venture, borrowing the rest from friends and distant relatives. I even had to procure the chairs and table on credit. I had jumped in with both feet.”

Then, just as the business began to pick up, a housing boom in the city forced his hand into further debt. “My first rent was Rs 3,000 but before long it had gone up to Rs 22,000. Then one day the landlord asked me to either buy the land from him or vacate the property altogether,” he says. The cost of procurement was Rs 2 million, and Lama recalls of having “no option but to drown in loans” to keep his business afloat. But even that, ultimately, wasn’t enough.

When the Maoist insurgency began to wreak havoc on Pokhara’s tourism sector and the number of visitors tanked, Moondance went belly up. Frustrated, Lama then migrated to Canada where he enrolled into a college to polish his English and joined a culinary school. But even after being granted Permanent Residence (PR), Lama found himself longing for home—eventually plunging him into years of struggle with clinical depression.

“Seeing everything I had earned and built disappear so quickly had a deep impact on my psyche. I was hanging out with the wrong crowd, allowing myself to drown in the negativity and self-loathing,” he says, remembering the eight times he travelled to India for treatment after he returned home from Canada, “But at some point, I decided to stop wallowing. I came from the very bottom rung of the ladder, and though I had lost everything at that point, I knew I had the skills to restart all over again.”

And restart he did. Following Moondance’s re-launch in 2005 the restaurant had grown to become a permanent fixture of Pokhara’s tourism landscape and Lama, once a teenage dishwasher in Kathmandu, is pocketing north of Rs 10 million annually. His unprecedented success has also allowed him to buy up a number of properties, and he owns an organic farm that he uses to source fresh produce for his restaurant. Currently, Lama is also busy making plans for a hotel and a Moondance outlet in Kathmandu.

But for all his hard-earned fortune, Lama remains a humble businessman and employer, who continues to give back to the employees that helped him get to where he is today. Generous with staff salaries and constantly prodding his charges to take up new challenges, Lama is perhaps one of the few employers who actively encourage his employees to strike it out on their own once they have gained the necessary skillsets.

“If there is one thing I believe in, it is that everyone should chase their dreams and discover what they are good at,” Lama muses, “I look at it this way: Had I not had the courage to start my own business where would I be now? Still working at some dingy restaurant in Kathmandu. And if I built all of this success from nothing, then anybody can. I make sure my employees know and internalise that.”

Published: 2017-12-31 13:34:10