Have you ever sat down to dinner and ordered dessert first, just so you could be sure you had enough room and didn’t spoil it with your dinner? If the answer is yes, as it so often is for me, then you are a kindred spirit with Alisha Kandola, owner and creator of Sweet Life Dessert Experience.
A lifelong lover of all things sweet, she and her husband have created a sugar haven just north of the city that would make any chocoholic or dessert diva swoon. Commanding the helm of a dessert restaurant with plans of expansion on her mind, Alisha is the living example that you can eat all the candy you want, and live a happy, healthy life.
Whether or not you believe in fate, it seems that Alisha and her husband were always destined to be restaurateurs. “My family is all about restaurants. My grandparents had one, and just on my side of the family there are about four or five restaurants between Canada and India. My husband’s family is all about restaurants as well. His uncle was the first person to open an Indian restaurant in Niagara Falls, then his father had the second Indian restaurant, then a third one. So very restaurant heavy.”
It seemed that everyone had a restaurant except for Alisha’s father, who instead decided to follow his dream and become a geologist. So Alisha had two examples before her — following a family tradition, or paving her own path. She has done a little bit of both in the Sweet Life. While she is still a restaurateur like the generations before her, she has turned the idea of a restaurant on its head, creating a Dessert Restaurant. That’s right — a place where the only thing on the menu is the best part of the meal. This is not your counter service ice cream shop or a place that has a few chairs in case you want to sit down and enjoy a sundae while you shop for other sweets in their storefront. This is a sit-down, luxury experience where the main focus is the star course of any meal: dessert.
It seems that Alisha has always had a sweet tooth. Growing up in India, some things were available at every turn, while other things remained a novelty item to be savored.
“Whenever we would go to my grandpa’s house, there would be stacks of sweets…[they] were just always a part of our life.” On the other hand, things like soda were a rare treat.
“My parents didn’t have that much money, so having Coke once every 6 months was a novelty for us. My dad would bring home a 1-liter bottle, and we would gather round the table and drink it.” The same went for ice cream, which was a special treat to be had. There wasn’t a variety of flavors like there are when you walk down the aisle at Wegmans, dizzy with choices. When asked about her very first flavor, a clear memory popped up.
“Ice cream was something that was just not cheap. A very popular flavor in India is called Tutti Frutti. It’s almost like an ice cream version of fruit cake; it has itty bitty pieces of fruit. It was brick of ice cream, and you would cut it and put it on a paper plate. That was my first experience with ice cream.” It must have stuck — years later, she’s making her own ice cream almost daily.
When she was 10 her family moved to Toronto, Ontario. Her first few work experiences this side of the globe set the stage for her current endeavor. She, like many teenagers, had her first job scooping up sundaes at Baskin-Robbins. “I used to come home and make all these sundaes. [I would say] ‘Mom, I’m gonna make you a brownie Sundae’. I guess it was foreshadowing!” It made such an impression, she can still recall her favorite flavor. “Jamoca Almond Fudge ice cream — it has almonds in there, a swirl of chocolate, nutty and caramely. I don’t drink coffee, but it’s such a good flavor!”
With restaurants in the back of her mind, and an entrepreneurial spirit, Alisha started her first food-related business while she was in college at the young age of 19. While studying personal training, physical education, and health at the University of Toronto, her mother was out of work. Knowing how much of an incredible cook her mother was, and realizing the untapped Indian student population who was missing their mothers’ home cooking, the idea was as simple as it as genius. Alisha went ahead of the curve and started a meal delivery service.
“The meal service that is really big right now — I did that 15 years ago! My mom had lost her job with the recession, and I was like, ‘How about we do meal service?’ — Indian food service for college students. It actually became really successful. I would do deliveries every Sunday. It was a whole week’s worth of [homemade] food. My mom would cook like she would cook for us, she would just cook a larger batch. People loved it — they missed that kind of home cooking. Within a year we got a really good clientele and it expanded to catering.” However, her mother was not unemployed for long, and within a year or so, it was too much to keep going with a full-time job. But that taste of success would stay with her; it was just a matter of time when it would rear its head again.
Enter Andy Kandola, Alisha’s husband and co-owner and partner in Sweet Life. Andy, who was living in Niagara Falls, first met Alisha in Toronto. On their first date, they went to not one, but two dessert spots. They had some local gelato and then headed to a favorite spot for a brownie sundae. “I remember our first date, we were talking and talking, and we found out that we both really enjoy desserts. That’s kind of part of our love story when we were dating — we would try dessert spots in Toronto.”
A little more than 5 years ago, they married and Alisha relocated to Buffalo. So what would a couple with a background in restaurants, that both loved desserts, eventually do? The answer was obvious. “I always had that spark of setting up a business in the restaurant field, and my husband has always had that interest. He’s been doing that since he was 13. During the summertime, that’s what he’d do, be on his feet for 14-16 hours a day, giving out fliers, hosting at a young age. So when we got together it was just natural, it made sense.”
They had decided to open a dessert restaurant, combining their love of sweets and their family history of restaurants. It was a way to honor their past while also embracing their own unique selves. Knowing what would be involved in running a restaurant, they went full speed ahead, starting with the most important part — the recipes. “Prior to opening, I went to Penn State to learn how to make ice cream, how to make batters, and worked with a chocolatier.” For a month she commuted the 6 hours to Penn State, and spent the whole weekend at school. Not only was she in school, but she was pregnant, too! Talk about a multitasker.
They opened Dessert Cafe in 2016. This restaurant was located in East Amherst, and was a smaller scale than their current venture. This is where their dream started. “We wanted to break the traditional concept of having ice cream.” They wanted to bring the love they have of desserts to the public, and show them that it can be the focus of a whole restaurant and dining out experience. You don’t have to walk up to the counter of a Dairy Queen, you can be seated by a friendly server, and enjoy something delicious and homemade, in a beautiful environment, like any other meal. But like any business, there were kinks to work out. Even for these two, with restauranting in their blood, owning and operating a restaurant by themselves still had its challenges.
“When we first opened, we had horrible wait times. No one’s gonna wait 30 minutes for a dessert. We were trying out a few different things, perfecting our recipes. When they say this industry is ruthless and it wears you out, it’ll wear you out if you are not passionate about it. You’ve got to keep your focus on what it is that you want to do.”
About a year into their first venture, they realized they would need to relocate. Being in a small tucked away space off the beaten path was not going to cut it when you had an idea as novel as theirs. They would need visibility and traffic to make it work. They spent a lot of time researching, and it was probably the most fun research I’ve ever heard of. They traveled to Montreal, Toronto, Chicago, and all over Buffalo just to name a few places, eating their way through a ton of restaurants. They tried every dessert they could, and checked out the decor and style of various places, seeing what worked and what didn’t.
They ended up deciding on an Alice in Wonderland theme, something magical and fanciful, and a theme that could be dressed up and sophisticated. They spent time figuring out what kind of wallpapers they would have, decided on a large mural of a forest, and even worked on the design for some custom-made furniture. All they needed was a space. They eventually found an old and very large Subway restaurant on Niagara Falls Boulevard and decided that would be their new home. They put their minds to it and created the beautifully thought out restaurant they have now.
“We got it in February 2018 and were open on March 14.” Uhm, excuse me? I consider myself someone who can get things done, but this is even beyond my wildest dreams. They got a space, and then gutted, rebuilt, and opened their doors for business in 6 weeks? Yes, they did. This is what a power couple — an actual, real-life power couple, can do. “Me and my husband are kind of supercharged. We won’t sleep, we will get stuff done, and my husband is like ‘go, go, go’. If there’s an item on our to-do list, we’ve got to get it done, finish it, and then we can go to bed. I learned a lot of that discipline from him.”
This explains it all. How they are able to have 10 flavors of fresh ice cream, made in house almost daily. How they manage to create a delicious batter for their crepes and waffles, and have fresh chocolate sauce made in-house. How they are able to make you feel like a princess, in their plush velvety booths, surrounded by a forest and glamorous glass lights, presenting you with a large glass goblet of high quality premium ice cream. “Our ice cream is fresh. We made this batch yesterday, and we’ll go through it in a couple days. So we are continually making new ice cream.”
Even though they are able to deal with any issue, and can power through any problem, one issue they have not quite mastered is explaining what they are all about. This is not something they can fix overnight, but rather one customer at a time. The concept of a ‘dessert restaurant’ is fairly new to most of their customers and it has to be explained one table at a time. “People come in and they don’t know what they are walking into. I think that’s the thing — the way dessert is served, the model hasn’t changed a lot. It is a very different concept. People still don’t understand that ‘Hey, we can sit down and have dessert’, that dessert doesn’t have to be counter service — really breaking the traditional concept of having ice cream. That’s the huge part, we have to educate our customers over and over again, letting them know who we are.”
One thing that wasn’t apparent to Alisha when first opening the restaurant was what specific kinds of customers they would have. While they are popular with the younger 20s and 30s crowd, the mom crowd, and the family crowd, they have a ton of diversity. That was an unexpected bonus of their restaurant. They are vegetarian — they have eggs in their batter, and milk in their ice cream, but there is no meat. They also do not serve alcohol. As a result they get a ton of different ethnic backgrounds coming in, and their restaurant is a mini melting pot. In this day and political climate, it is wonderful to see so many different people sharing the same space, enjoying the same things together.
So next time you are planning a meal at home, don’t forget the most important part — dessert. I recommend you leave it to the experts, and go out and end your evening on a sweet note.
Photos by AlanAdetolArts, L.L.C. – Birdcage Studios – Buffalo, N.Y. 14213 –[email protected]
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