Tong was nothing more than a small fuchka cart in Jackson Heights when it started its journey in 2018. Fast forward to 2022, Tong now has seven carts in different parts of the Borough and has even set up a brick-and-mortar outlet, named Tong Restaurant.
But Jackson Heights, typically a hub of cultural assimilation, is no stranger to multiethnic street food. Then what sets Tong apart? Tong's founder Md Naeem Khandaker believed that their food remained authentic to its roots, the Bangladeshi cuisine.
"When I came to study abroad, I was disappointed with the lack of representation for Bangladesh's rich street food culture. So I began thinking about Tong in 2017 and proceeded as a one-man army to make Bangladeshi street foods more accessible to New Yorkers," said Naeem.
Naeem is a 30-year-old entrepreneur and a cook who resides in New York and he wants to popularise Bangladeshi street foods and their authenticity to New Yorkers. Thanks to the quality of his food, he has taken Tong's brand value to the millions.
According to Naeem, the red and green Bangla logo of Tong reflects his love for the motherland and his passion to instil the flavours of his roots on American tastebuds.
The Tong cart boasts scrumptious snacks such as Fuchka, Doi Fuchka, jhalmuri, guava vorta and mango vorta. However, due to space limitations and a heavy focus on maintaining the quality of food, the carts could not afford to sell more items. In their new dine-in location however, they expanded their menu with yet another surprise for Bangladeshi food lovers. The new menu added beef chaap with luchi, vegetable luchi, Old Dhaka style lemonade, 'Bhalobashar Shorbot' (a refreshing drink made with milk, watermelon and rosewater), faluda and Fire Fuchka (that literally has fire in it).
Naeem is on a mission to promote Bangladesh through his delectable snacks. He spoke to The Business Standard team about his journey with Tong and his motivations behind the venture.
Naeem grew up in Gulshan, Dhaka and studied at BAF Shaheen College before leaving Bangladesh to pursue his undergraduate degree in Italy. Growing up, he saw his mother and aunts cooking mouthwatering Bangladeshi foods but never saw any men helping them. Naeem thinks of cooking as an essential skill and he is proud of being able to cook for himself and others just like his mother used to.
"While I was studying in Italy, I visited different European countries through exchange programs. I embraced and learned about different cultures throughout my student life. Nonetheless, a common misconception always bothered me. People could not distinguish between Indian cuisine from their Bangladeshi counterparts. But the truth is, we have our treasures filled with exceptional dishes!" Naeem said.
Naeem moved to New York in 2013 in an exchange program. Even in New York, he observed that many restaurants sold Bangladeshi food, but for the sake of business, they labelled them as Indian. Naeem made up his mind to commercialise the idea of Bangladeshi street food, starting from the most common ones in Fuchka and Jhalmuri.
"I don't think anyone ever believed that forming a Bangladeshi street food cart would be profitable, and challenging this notion made Tong a success," said Naeem.
He further added that Tong is special not only because of its unique presentation of food but also because of the many struggles through which it became a reality. Starting with a $50,000 investment from one cart, Tong's food carts are now set in several locations in New York ranging from The Bronx to Steinway and Jamaica of Queens. He dreams to spread the magic of Tong all over America one day.
"I get multiple offers to make it a franchise every now and then, but at this moment I don't want to operate outside my limitations. It's more difficult to retain the crown than earn it. As I can't maintain the quality of the food made out of my proximity I don't want to take the risk," said Naeem.
"After proper training on how to make our signature foods and overcoming the existing hurdles, I aim to expand all over America just like McDonald's or any famous franchise," he added.
So how did Naeem learn cooking? In student life, Naeem missed home-cooked foods which drove him to cook Desi food for himself. Soon the necessity became a passion.
Ismail Al Faysal, a Bangladeshi expatriate living in New York tasted Tong's delights. He shared, "It is rare to find luchi and chaap here, so when I found it in the menu of Tong, I was so overwhelmed and ordered immediately. Much to my surprise, it was amazing! It took me back to Bangladesh."
From being featured in The New York Times to being nominated in Who's Who in America, Naeem and his Tong are making it big slowly. Tong works as a catering service for many big events. For example, it recently served in a corporate event in Samsung's head office and is getting ready to participate in big food festivals this year. The restaurant is also to be featured on the award-winning culinary show Kitchen Impossible.
"I have seen non-Bengali people coming back to taste our fuchkas and other street foods. And in different events I serve, there are very few Bangladeshi people, but everyone loves our food because it's a blast of diverse flavours" said Naeem.
Naeem's good friend, Md Asaduzzaman pramanik, a professional photographer joined the new venture as a partner. The grand opening of Tong Restaurant will be held sometime this month, but a TikTok video went viral and as a result, the restaurant's patronage grew.
"Our Bangladeshi street-inspired renovation caught eyes easily and because of a random TikTok video, we were pushed to serve before the launching event. People are receiving the new items with an open heart and I am really glad to see the response" said Naeem.
Who knew that selling 'Fuchka' in a foreign land had a backstory embedded with nationalism and a dramatic struggle to resist the naysayers' discouragement? Tong can be a milestone for future Bangladeshi entrepreneurs who can proudly represent Bangladeshi cuisine.