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PHOTO GALLERY: Kumbha-Yah Cafe and EV Market Place Fuels the Community

The hybrid concept aims to be a gathering place from the "inside out."
Outside sign at Kumbha-Yah Cafe and EV Market Place

CANAL WINCHESTER, Ohio — "To fuel our customers' lives so they can go places and do better things."

With that mission in mind, owner Srini Kumbha realized a dream when his Kumbha-Yah Cafe and EV Market Place — a hybrid foodservice/convenience store concept — celebrated its grand opening in Canal Winchester on Aug. 26, 2023.

"About six years ago, I got the idea of building a business in the community that would be a gathering place for people and within that business, I wanted to offer good products and services," explained Kumbha, an IT consultant by trade who decided to buy the land and work to make his idea a reality with the help of family, friends and community partners. "Now, it's real — the Market Place and café is standing right here!"

The story behind Kumbha's dream is one of opportunity, resilience and a bit of luck, too. It began in 2003 when he came from India to the United States as a 25-year-old for a job opportunity. "Life was different and in a good way," he recalled.

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[Read more: Small Operators Hold an Advantage in Tight Labor Market]

The lucky part came when Kumbha, who had polio as a youth, met someone at a local business who mentioned that a leg brace could help his polio-affected leg. "I was fitted with a custom brace and able to stand and walk upright while carrying grocery bags in my two hands for the first time in my life," he said. "To this day, I think of that person who approached me about the brace and consider him my godsent guardian angel."

He eventually met his wife Denise, got married, had their son Teja and 13 years ago, moved the family to Canal Winchester, where Kumbha continued working in IT as the idea for Kumbha-Yah Cafe and EV Market Place began to take shape.

He evaluated the idea "over a period of time" before deciding to move ahead.

"I was originally interested in a real estate investment. Then, once I bought the property, I was doing research and the idea for a c-store and gas station struck the most," he recounted. "They are such integral parts of American life, and I thought the concept would be a great opportunity for a business and for the community where we are."

More research on convenience retailing trends convinced Kumbha and his wife to take the foodservice/convenience store hybrid route.

"We found that, more and more, everyone is offering food. We thought it would be beneficial for our customers to have a smaller footprint, one-stop shop," he explained. "Most of the traditional c-stores and gas stations rely on the 'outside in' concept, meaning come for gas and then get convenience items. However, we want to be 'inside out,' meaning come for groceries, food, c-store items and then get gas."

To gain the information and skills they lacked, the couple visited gas stations, and Kumbha even worked at both a coffee shop and a gas station — short-term jobs that taught him about equipment, menus, the processes involved in running a retail business, and managing customers and employees.

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Jumping the Hurdles

Even with all of the preparation and planning, launching Kumbha-Yah Cafe and EV Market Place did not come without challenges. As Kumbha quickly learned, opening and then running a c-store is always challenging, but for small, independent operators, the hurdles are often higher than those the larger chain operators face.

"We hit roadblocks with architecture and engineering for the first three years, and then COVID put us on the backburner for a couple more years," Kumbha said, noting that the biggest challenge was cost overrun. "Construction and material costs were doubled compared to pre-COVID and the financing took longer than anticipated."

All told, from concept ideation to opening, it took six years to come to fruition. 

Once Kumbha-Yah Cafe and EV Market Place opened, new hurdles replaced the old ones. Staffing, followed by marketing and then merchandising, pose the biggest challenges.

"We continue to face staffing issues such as no-shows due to illness, as well as gaps caused by major holidays like spring break and Easter," Kumbha said. "As owners, we step in to cover these gaps whenever possible, and we continue to hire staff on a regular basis."

On the marketing front, Kumbha mostly relies on Facebook local groups, the Nextdoor app and flyers to get the word out, as well as talking to customers when they stop in the store.

Kumbha's merchandising challenges are those that every small operator can understand. "We do not get the discounts or can't meet the minimum order requirements, so we are trying to reach out to local wholesalers instead of national distributors," he noted.

A recent decision to register with Sam's Club wholesale and Walmart Business is proving worthwhile.

"We bring goods from these stores to help us. This benefits us, as well as the customer," said Kumbha. "For example, the milk from Smith's costs $4.69 for us and sells for $5.99, whereas the milk from Walmart is $2.62 and we sell it for $3.99. 5-hour Energy from a national vendor is $2.50-plus. From Sam's Club, it is $1.66. We still have a long way to go, but we are realizing and making progress toward bringing cost-effective products to our customers."

Setting the Business Apart

Much about Kumbha-Yah Cafe and EV Market Place resembles other stores in the area. The c-store stocks traditional items such as candy, chips and beverages, while the cafe serves up freshly made pizzas, subs, salads, specialty coffee drinks, smoothies and broasted chicken.

So far, the c-store is topping the cafe in sales volume. However, foodservice sales are slowly improving. "Our broasted chicken, pizza and smoothies work well and recently, cold subs are selling well, too," Kumbha reported.

What makes Kumbha-Yah Cafe and EV Market Place stand out?

The most obvious differences are its drive-thru that provides a convenient ordering option for customers and its larger selection of grocery items. But even more so, Kumbha believes it is the subtle ways the family approaches the business that set it apart in the industry.

"I realize there is a retail outlet, convenience store or cafe in almost every corner of every community. So, you may ask how this new establishment is different? First off, we are locally owned and belong to this community where we live," he pointed out. "We offer job opportunities right within our neighborhood. Many employees walk to work."

The store also features a small, reserved space called "The Nook" that customers can reserve for small group gatherings — serving as a meeting place for the community.

Perhaps most important, Kumbha said, the business reflects the four values the family holds dear:

  1. People first. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.
  2. Excellence in all we do. Whatever is true, honorable, just, commendable, worthy of praise and service, do those things.
  3. Stronger together. Two are better than one.
  4. It's all about Yah! Thy brand shall be my brand — that is, love god and love your neighbor.

Customers are responding to this personal approach. "We get repeat customers on a daily basis, sometimes the same customer two to three times a day," Kumbha said.

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