From the lab to the kitchen, restaurant owner realizes her small business dream
“I want to open a juice bar.”
It was a life-changing, a-ha moment for Sasha Raj when she confidently responded to the proverbial “What are you going to do with your life?” question while eating dinner with her family nearly a decade ago.
Raj had just earned a degree in biochemistry from Arizona State University and was taking a few graduate classes when pressed about her career ambitions. But she knew being a biochemist wasn’t in the cards—or her heart.
“Saying it out loud made it real,” she says of publicly admitting her desire to become a small-business owner. Yet opening a natural juice bar, which wasn’t exactly mainstream at the time, wasn’t some youthful flight of fancy. As a student, Raj worked at a juice bar near campus and became fascinated with the industry, doing research and testing recipes with the idea of launching her own venture.
“I had no idea it was a viable path,” says Raj, who was born in Vellore, India, and moved to the United States as a young child. Though she always enjoyed cooking, her family believed the ticket to making it in America as an immigrant was based on academic achievement.
“I come from a long line of scientists and the road to success is through education, not owning a restaurant,” she says. But it was her family’s Hindu beliefs and lactovegetarian lifestyle that greatly influenced her decision to deviate from employment expectations and open a plant-based juice bar.
With an investment from her aunt and uncle and elbow grease from other family members, Raj launched 24 Carrots in 2008 in Chandler. The name is a riff on 24 karats, the purest form of gold available. In her case, it meant offering the highest quality of juices available, without additives, fillers or sweeteners.
The initial lineup at 24 Carrots featured five smoothies and five juices and within two months of opening, it became clear to Raj that adding a food component was necessary to attract customers.
“I had a business plan and strategy, and assumed a juice bar would work,” says Raj. “But it morphed when I realized people wanted to eat and do it quickly, too.”
Armed with just a rice cooker, an oven and eventually an electric griddle she bought at a grocery store, the self-taught cook slowly added soups, salads, sandwiches, and burgers to her vegetarian lineup.
“I started out with fruit cups and a big pot of chili, a sort of kidney bean stew served with rice or bread that would sell out every day,” she says.
In 2013, Raj moved the restaurant to Tempe, where a much larger kitchen and dining space allowed her to expand her now all-vegan focus and become more technique-oriented in food development.
“It became clear that 24 Carrots wouldn’t live up to its potential in the old space,” she says. “We moved with the mentally that we were a full-fledged restaurant and not just a juice bar.”
Today, 24 Carrots has 14 employees and offers a diverse, rotating vegan, mostly gluten-free menu based on seasonal items, many of which are sourced locally, with a full bakery, coffee bar, and meal-planning services. Though many assume 24 Carrots is an Indian restaurant, its global lineup is a cultural fusion of many spices and flavors based on Raj’s experiences as an immigrant and American. Of course, her ethnicity naturally seeps into the equation, but, more importantly, 24 Carrots serves her passion to create delicious vegan cuisine that is handcrafted with the best, most pure ingredients available.
Raj is grateful for 24 Carrots’ success, yet the path to juice bar and restaurant ownership hasn’t been without challenges. For the first year, she was the sole cook and bottle washer but has learned to set boundaries—namely being closed on Mondays instead of staying open seven days a week.
“It’s hard to go home and take a break when you love what you do, but you can’t afford to burn out because your business is at risk,” she says. “I’ve also become more adaptable, learned to ask for help and admit when I am wrong.”
The one thing that hasn’t changed is Raj’s unwavering commitment to her original business vision.
“My intention for 24 Carrots was to be homespun, and it still is a scratch operation,” she says. “I am trying to be true to the ingredients I use and the people I serve. You have to be authentically yourself because there is no such thing as a second act.”
Story by Sally J. Clasen
Photography by Mark Lipczynski