Tiger by the Tail 

Tipu’s faces a fork in the road: Can Buddhism and business get along?

Perhaps it was doomed from the beginning.

When Bipin Patel and fellow Buddhist Chris Eyer decided to open an Indian restaurant based on their religious ethics, the name they chose paid homage to an Indian sultan. Tipu Sultan, known as the Tiger of Mysore (in southern India), lived in the second half of the 18th century and fiercely committed himself to the preservation of his kingdom against British invasion. Though not a Buddhist himself, the Muslim sultan was an enlightened ruler who supported diversity and religious freedom. His personal library contained more than 2,000 volumes in multiple languages. But despite his courage and erudition, and despite early successes on the battlefield, the British—through intrigue and conspiracy—conquered Mysore, eventually killing Tipu Sultan in the process.

Tipu’s Tiger, the sultan’s epicurean namesake, has all the earmarks of the sort of restaurant that ought to find a niche in progressive Missoula, once, but fadingly, known as the Berkeley of the Rockies: it’s health conscious, environmentally friendly (the takeout containers are the more expensive recycled kind), ethnic (in a town that celebrates—but hardly embodies—diversity) and meat-free (the menu is 70 percent vegan). In April 2003, loyal customers nominated the restaurant for PETA’s (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) restaurant of the month award, an internationally recognized honor. To boot, Tipu’s has been written up in almost every Montana travel guide, including Let’s Go and Lonely Planet. Every last item on the menu is made from scratch (including the yogurt), and when the cooks cannot obtain foodstuffs from organic producers, they turn to local resources. Available meal plans (often taken advantage of by college students) offer 5 to 10 percent discounts and the daily all-you-can-eat buffet has been a Missoula mainstay for almost five years. When Tipu’s opened almost eight years ago, it was a first for the state on two counts: Montana’s first all-vegetarian restaurant and its first Indian restaurant. It’s still the only restaurant of either description in the state.

But while Tipu’s is certainly not typical, that doesn’t necessarily make it successful. Begun in May 1997 by two members of the Friends of the Western Buddhist Organization (FWBO), the restaurant initially found an enthusiastic reception. Missoulians flocked to the original South Higgins Street location (the current location of Justin’s Hob Nob). Today, though, Tipu’s doesn’t even break even.

“I am probably [more] afraid of what’s going on with the business now than I’ve ever been,” admits owner Bipin Patel. Two years ago the restaurant’s business was down by 11 percent over the year prior; in the last 12 months business has been down 16 percent from the previous period. A restaurant going belly-up is no new thing in Missoula, and new restaurants pop in and out as frequently as tourists during fishing season. In the past four years, restaurants like Marianne’s, Steelhead Grill and Big Cup have all come and gone. According to some estimates, one of every two Missoula County restaurants will fail in its first few years of business. And it’s not just newer restaurants that are vulnerable. Ray Risho, longtime Missoula restaurateur, will close his family’s restaurant, Perugia, in May after almost 10 years in business. The reason? “Economics,” Risho states unwaveringly. “There has been a movement away from the culture of slow-cooked food. The restaurants that make profits off their food are not really restaurants at all, they’re casinos. A customer might spend four dollars on reheated French fries and the casino will actually make money off that.”

Are Missoulians that apathetic about their food? Maybe. A recent informal study asked 500 Missoulians what they valued most in the community. Of the amenities offered, cultural diversity, cultural events and entertainment (a night out to dinner could fit under any or all these categories) figured relatively low on the list. On top of the list were outdoor recreation and population density.

And it’s not just Missoula’s restaurant-averse climate that threatens Tipu’s. There’s also the restaurant’s investment in the idealistic belief that an ethics-based business can not just survive, but flourish.

“People find it difficult to live out an ideal,” admits owner Patel. “It was like Tipu’s was an experiment in a spiritual vision that a number of us held. We had times when it worked, and times when it didn’t, but in the end, I think we failed to create a business where Buddhists could work together.”

The result is that while the DNA of the original, Buddha-fied Tipu’s continues to inform the financially ailing Tipu’s of today, many of those most intimate with the experiment wonder if the business can further sustain its uncertain balance between Buddhist ethics and good old-fashioned moneymaking.

And an even tougher question remains: Are Tipu’s ethical ideals in fact a liability?

Talk to any die-hard customer or former employee of Tipu’s and sooner rather than later you will hear about Bipin Patel, Tipu’s founding owner (he and original partner Chris Eyer amicably split after six months and today Eyer is a successful local electrician). Former manager Nathan McTague claims that Tipu’s has an unusually high rate of returning employees due almost entirely “to the ethical principles of its owner.” Current front manager Thomas Browne puts it this way: Patel “is not our owner. He is our co-worker, and as long as this restaurant is in business, I will work here.”

Patel, known to his friends as Buddhapalita (the Buddhist name he adopted after his ordination into the Friends of the Western Buddhist Order), was born in Uganda to Indian parents. Just before his 10th birthday his parents relocated to England just one year before the rise to power of Idi Amin, who would eventually be responsible for the deaths of more than 300,000 Ugandans in the 1970s. After becoming a Buddhist, Patel moved to New Hampshire in 1988 where he helped to establish a retreat center for the FWBO. Seven years later he moved to Montana.

Linda Veum, Patel’s life partner for almost 15 years and former manager of Tipu’s (she owns 2 percent of the business and still handles much of the restaurant’s bookkeeping), is a tall blonde who grew up just outside of Boston. Today she works mostly out of her home in Ronan. Veum, who prefers to go by her Buddhist name, Varada, laughs when she relates that “when Buddhapalita and I walk down the street together in Ronan, both the tribal people and the whites do a double-take. They look at [Buddhapalita] and try to figure out whether or not he’s Native American. You can actually see the question on their faces: just exactly what is this tall, brown man doing walking around in Ronan?”

The answer to how a British man, of Indian descent, born in Uganda, ends up in a state not known for its ethnic diversity is a relatively straightforward one. Like many, Patel was drawn to Missoula because of its landscape and friendly nature. “I think in the end I wanted to live in Missoula because it wasn’t such a drastic move from living in the retreat center in New Hampshire,” he explains. “[Missoula] was a small town where I already knew some people, and I loved the mountains.” In some ways, just as his business grew out of a Buddhist faith, so did his decision to move to Missoula. “In a way it was because of my Buddhism that I ended up here, because of my Buddhist friends here. If I hadn’t known them, I wouldn’t have found Missoula.”

After driving from New Hampshire, Patel arrived in Missoula with little money and no small amount of disillusionment. The drawback to living in friendly, mountainous Missoula was the dearth of work. “I had lots of trouble finding work and that first winter was a very difficult time for me,” Patel explains, adding that he turned to the Food Bank during that first winter for sustenance. “It was very difficult and disheartening to me when I wasn’t able to support myself.” Almost two years later he and Eyer decided to open Tipu’s Tiger on South Higgins Street. “I love Indian food and missed it and felt that Missoula was missing out on something. It was also something that tied with my experience growing up.”

In fact most recipes on the menu come directly from his family’s repertoire, including Tipu’s chai (his grandmother’s) and the samosas (his mother’s). Still, Patel hears complaints that his food isn’t “real Indian food.”

Buddhist or not, that complaint hits a nerve.

“To me that’s a ludicrous statement and an insulting one. Are the people who say that actually people who have traveled through India? India is a country of many different regions, many different dialects and many different cuisines. In America, people are most often familiar with Tandoori, which is only one region in India. And what about the cuisine of southern India? No one talks about the cuisine of southern India.”

Even so, Tipu’s, celebrating its eighth anniversary in May, has already survived past the point at which many restaurants fail. For almost eight years, the restaurant has regularly served up samosas, rice, curries, curritos, dahls and their famous chai. Throughout that time, there have been many changes including a new venue (its current location in the alley behind the Independent), a period when it sustained two locations within a stone’s throw of each other, a period when its staff was separated according to gender, and the erratic dance between Buddhism and business.

In a recent article written for a Business Ethics Quarterly publication titled “Spiritual Goods: Faith Traditions and the Practice of Business,” Bodhipaksa, Buddhist and former graduate student in business at the University of Montana, points out that Buddhism actually encourages participation in the business world, as long as the business makes its profit in a legal and ethical way. Making money by causing physical harm, by cheating, through sexual exploitation, through lying or through promoting intoxication is ethically unacceptable. “Such activities would have a morally unhealthy effect on the workers and directors of a business so engaged, as well as a detrimental effect on society. Work should be used as a method of personal development, and workers should be encouraged to develop mindfulness and emotional maturity at work,” Bodhipaksa writes in the article, titled “Reinventing the Wheel: A Buddhist Approach to Ethical Work.”

The Friends of the Western Buddhist Order, the order to which Patel belongs, has actually been a pioneer in the field of commerce, operating a number of successful businesses, especially in Great Britain. The Buddhist attitude toward work is described by the phrase “Right Livelihood.” The four key goals of Right Livelihood are to 1) provide a work situation that helps people to develop as individuals; 2) benefit society; 3) provide a reasonable level of support for workers; and 4) donate to worthwhile causes.

The article contends that “The main reason the FWBO has chosen to set up businesses is in order to create environments where we can live ethical lives to the fullest possible extent, with others who share our values and aspirations. Indeed, if we understand meditation to be the systematic cultivation of positive states of mind, one might say that we aim to make our work an extension of our meditation.”

The points to take from the above statement are two. The article implies that all employees should be Buddhists, sharing the same belief system. But what happens when a Buddhist business simply can’t manage to hire a fully Buddhist staff? From the beginning, Tipu’s shared a work environment with non-Buddhists—employees who potentially did not subscribe to the same values and aspirations.

Secondly, anyone who has ever worked at any restaurant, specifically on the serving end, could illustrate the many ways in which restaurant work could almost never be described as an “extension of meditation.”

Patel himself claims that one of the major failings of the restaurant has been how quickly workers of the Buddhist stripe lost their idealism, not to mention their energy for the work itself.

“People got increasingly worn out by the work. Often, after people’s initial enthusiasm, they actually realized that Buddhist ideals are very difficult to live out in a business arena.”

Before the tradition petered out, a Tipu’s waiter might have begun his day’s work by passing around a lighted incense stick and marking, with a moment’s silence, the day’s task and the business’ endeavor: to serve food in a positive manner, to try to incorporate a spiritual and ethical dimension into the day’s work. Those who chose to participate (participation was never required, especially for non-Buddhist employees) met collectively in the front of the restaurant and stood in silence, passing around the incense until one by one they would exit the circle and resume their opening duties. The restaurant was then ready for business.

That same waiter might close his day’s work uttering the Transfer of Merit chant. After each employee finished his or her closing tasks, everyone would gather at the dish-tank, where together they would finish whatever dishes were left and those who chose to would participate in the Transfer of Merit: a closing ceremony in which whatever spiritual benefit had been gained from the day’s activities was dedicated through prayer to other beings. After the closing ceremony, the entire staff would leave together.

Although the tradition of leaving together at day’s end remains, it’s been almost four years since Tipu’s management made a conscious decision to forgo the opening and closing ceremonies. The tradition died when it got to the point where the few Buddhists who worked in the restaurant became a minority. “Once we decided not to do it anymore, it was a relief,” admits Patel. “Once we got to the point where there were only a few Buddhists left, it felt artificial to me and it created a slightly awkward atmosphere between those who participated and those who did not.”

It was soon after the restaurant opened that Patel and his partners realized they couldn’t sustain the business on the backs of Missoula’s handful of Buddhists. While there was one period in the spring of 1999 when the employee roster was 65 percent Buddhist, for much of its existence the core of Tipu’s staff has been primarily non-Buddhist. While Missoula is home to a healthy Buddhist community, it’s still a fairly limited one. Currently, Patel estimates, about 200 Buddhists call Missoula home, and at the time of Tipu’s opening in 1997, Patel estimates there were fewer than 40 Buddhists in town—not all of them willing and able to work at minimum wage. A need-based salary system was employed only for full-time employees, and sporadically at that.

The problem is not an unusual one at Buddhist-based restaurants. Green’s Restaurant, a San Francisco institution, was begun by a group of Zen Buddhists in the 1970s. Today, the all-vegetarian restaurant has its own cookbook and recommends patrons secure reservations for dinner. The similarity between Tipu’s and Green’s is that both had to turn to a non-Buddhist employee pool to keep their restaurants fully staffed. Though the same Zen Buddhists still own Green’s, the restaurant has depended upon a professional staff of non-Buddhist cooks and servers for day-to-day operations.

In his article, Bodhipaksa also stresses that Buddhism reinforces a cooperative approach between workers and management, noting that “the employer is portrayed as serving the employee just as the employee is expected to serve the business interests of the employer.” To this end, Tipu’s began its business life by offering substantial benefits to full-time staff, including health insurance, dental insurance and five weeks paid leave annually for Buddhist employees to attend retreats.

Paid leave, however, was not available to workers going to Tahiti for vacation. As one former non-Buddhist employee explained, “that system did create some tension between Buddhists and non-Buddhists. It was a system that didn’t last very long, but while it was in place I wondered: Am I paying for this person’s retreat with my time and my money?”

Workers at Tipu’s generally started off at minimum wage, but initially management tried to employ a need-based salary system. This means that if you’re a kitchen manager living alone and I’m a dishwasher with two kids, I’ll get more money. The need-based salary is not an unusual aspect of ethically based businesses, but is it realistic?

Dennis NettikSimmons, a professor of business ethics at Montana State University in Billings, says “The idea of family is the best parallel behind the ideal. If a group is akin to a family, you never have to worry about money: Your family will take care of you. Culturally speaking and economically speaking, it’s almost impossible to do because it requires you to think in the present. Once you start worrying about the future, that’s when you start worrying about money, about saving your little nest egg. It’s fear that makes us hoarders.”

While Buddhist consciousness set the Tipu’s ideal in motion, and while Buddhist sentiment introduced such practices as the Transfer of Merit, it was—perhaps surprisingly—a not very Buddhist lack of awareness that compromised the four tenets of “Right Livelihood” at Tipu’s. While it may be true that there weren’t enough Buddhists to fully staff the restaurant, Patel admits the problems may have run deeper than that. In its first few years, many members of FWBO moved to Missoula to work at Tipu’s, but over the years they tended to leave.

“And it wasn’t just for economic reasons that they left,” Patel has concluded. “It’s that they found restaurant work intensely difficult. They were all idealistic in their own ways and were trying to bring those ideals into their work. Restaurant work is hard enough, but it’s much harder when you’re trying to bring in a spiritual and ethical dimension to your work. When it comes down to it, are we willing to bring those Buddhist ideals into the nitty-gritty of everyday life? It’s very easy to say that you believe in compassion, but what happens when you act differently in front of your co-workers who also believe in compassion? You can’t so easily be dishonest with yourself. I think people were exhausted by that work and so most of the Buddhists ended up leaving.”

Perhaps, though, Buddhist sentiment continues to exist where Buddhist employees do not. In addition to Patel and longtime head cook Sharon Twamley, only one other current employee is a Buddhist. Even so, current front manager (and non-Buddhist) Thomas Browne maintains, “This staff is one core, one unit. We work together and I am no one’s ‘boss.’”

Browne contends that the reason for the cooperative atmosphere is the restaurant’s emphasis on cross-training (in an attempt to share labor equally) and tip-sharing. Cross-training, however, can have its downside. Former manager Nathan McTague notes the reality that not everyone is suited to every job: “People have different strengths and weaknesses.”

Tip-sharing is also an ethical nod, a recognition that everyone has contributed to the customer’s enjoyment, though it has detractors as well. As one former employee points out, “When you take away a waiter’s tips, you’re taking away that classic benefit—the reason why people become servers in the first place.”

Still, Patel’s employees have consistently voted to keep the practice. “Every time I’ve brought up the topic of getting rid of tip-sharing, we still decide to keep it,” Patel says. “We discuss why it’s there and because of that, we decide to keep it in place.”

Ahimsa is a Buddhist term meaning “non-injury.” Noninjury implies not killing humans and animals alike, but in its most comprehensive meaning, ahimsa means abstinence from causing pain or harm whatsoever to any living creature, either by thought or word or deed. It is the motivation of ahimsa that led to Tipu’s best-known characteristics: its meat-free and alcohol-free menu. While Buddhist texts encourage business and trade, trade in flesh and trade in spirits are considered unsuitable for the Buddhist businessman.

If one of the primary principles in Buddhism is to cause no harm to any living creature, then by logical extension, a Buddhist restaurant should abstain from the slaughter of animals. Despite this clear-cut rationale, Tipu’s has been forced to rethink the vegetarian issue due to its declining business. In a survey done last spring (titled “To Be or Not to Be: Tipu’s needs HELP with Life’s BIG QUESTIONS”), management asked customers to respond to the question of meat vs. vegetarian. The messages they received were somewhat mixed, with responses depending more on how a question was asked than what it asked.

Depending on the question, customers wavered. They claimed to overwhelmingly value the ethical stance of the all-vegetarian menu. But they also didn’t seem to mind if meat dishes appeared on the menu, though most said they wouldn’t order any.

So what’s a Buddhist restaurant to do?

Regarding the meat issue, Tipu’s will probably stick to its guns. Varada, who has been involved in almost every aspect of the business from its inception, explains that sometimes you have to find that balance between your ethics and your survival and stick with it. “We have had to compromise a great deal just to stay in business and I suppose there comes a time when you have to draw the line and say okay, no more compromise,” she says. “If we have to serve meat, then we close the doors.” And to Varada, the compromises made regarding staff, benefits and future questions are still well within the realm of Buddhist awareness. “I don’t think it’s a mistake to make compromises in order to stay in business, but you have to be clear as to where you’re going to draw that line. That’s what Buddhist ethics is all about: It’s about drawing lines and using awareness to shift that line. The point is to make those compromises with an awareness of the harm you’re doing and reduce it as much as possible.”

The problem with ahimsa, from an economic perspective, is that meat and alcohol sell. The meat issue seems straightforward enough: Having committed to the noninjury of other beings, once you purchase a slaughtered animal for the sake of profit you may as well open a steakhouse, turn in your FWBO membership card and call it a day. The alcohol issue, however, introduces a gray area that reflects the discord between ethics and profit in a dramatic way.

From the upstairs office at Tipu’s, Patel looks out a window overlooking the Holiday gas station on the corner of Fourth Street and Higgins Avenue. “The primary principle of Buddhism is not to cause harm and we really tried to create a business that reflected that in every way, but the fudge factor really comes into play when we realized that alcohol is where ideals come against the reality of business.”

The reality of business, Patel says, is that the average restaurant will increase its revenue by almost 50 percent once it gains a beer and wine license. While Tipu’s still struggles with the challenges of actually acquiring a license (beer and wine licenses are allotted by the state based on a formula tied to population growth and awarded to restaurants by lottery), the question remains if Tipu’s will cross its own ethical line by serving alcohol. While Patel is clearly uncomfortable with the idea, it’s a compromise he says he’s willing to make for the sake of the business. “We would definitely be contributing money to an industry that causes harm. However, realistically, people don’t come to Tipu’s to get toasted. They would go to a bar for that. A customer might want a glass of wine with their dinner, and we might be able to provide and leave the choice up to them.”

The line may move, but it doesn’t disappear.

“We’re not going to put in slot machines and get a full liquor license and go in a direction that’s really going to increase the amount of harm we do,” explains Varada. “I don’t even believe it’s a political decision, but a decision as to where you’re putting the greater harm and I think allowing [the restaurant] to just go bankrupt without keeping the employees and the customers in mind would be doing greater harm.” As unsure as he is of the restaurant’s future, Patel is reflective and realistic: “I think I had a good idea initially. People used to say how glad they were that there was an Indian restaurant in town. I do believe, though, if I had opened a restaurant and served meat and served alcohol, I would be a wealthy man. And I believe it’s just that simple.”

Unsure of what the future holds and revealing a dark side to his humor, Patel laughs: “I have to remember that Tipu Sultan was killed by Wellesley [the commander also responsible for the defeat of Napoleon]. Someone should buy me out and open a place called Wellesley’s Steakhouse!”

But parallels between Tipu’s Tiger and Tipu Sultan may not be prophetic. While the original Buddhist designs of the restaurant have changed dramatically, that doesn’t necessarily portend an unethical—or financially secure—future for the restaurant in the alley. Though clearly threatened by the potential contradiction between its ideals and the necessity of sustaining itself financially, Tipu’s has addressed every turn along the path with an eye toward Right Livelihood.

Buddhist ethics emphasize awareness of the needs of the community. “Service,” Patel maintains, “is about compassion. It’s a human instinct to want to be of service in a community.” Does the community want meat? Does the community want alcohol? Should the restaurant honor the staff by spreading the tips around? While Patel continues to struggle with exactly where to draw the line, the line itself remains, and its presence, he finds, is a value unto itself.

“I think when you put yourself in a situation that is difficult and you stick with it and create something out of that, it’s a bit like you’re a rough rock,” he says. “You get thrown into a rock polishing machine, but we’re humans so you can feel the knocks and the scrapes and the sharp edges getting knocked off, and that’s not a very comfortable process. But you understand your faults and your weaknesses and your strengths better, and what your limits are maybe more clearly than when you went in. And I think that’s what I’ve benefited. I’ve felt really grateful for the kind of people I’ve worked with and the kind of people I’ve served. There is a sense that I’ve contributed positively and that means a lot to me.”

While the restaurant that bears his name has come dangerously close to its own defeat, the Tipu Sultan himself remains a potent symbol of ethical rule. Just this March, Tipu Sultan’s fighting sword was sold at a British auction for more than 300,000 pounds. Defeated sultans are rarely remembered beyond their own lands, and compared with the mighty British army, the principality of Mysore was tiny.

Still, it seems, the sultan who built his rule on an ethical framework—even though he lost his territory and his life in the bargain—is an example that continues to hold value.


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