16 July 2015

Local leaders - Lachhu Thapa (Wheat and Oats, The Hungry Buddha, Buddha Odyssey)

| Amy M
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lachhu thapa

There aren’t many Canberrans who can say they own a café in Phillip, a restaurant in Curtin, a Himalayan tour company and a bed and breakfast in Pokhara, Nepal.

Lachhu Thapa has a surprisingly calm demeanour for someone who works full-time while running multiple businesses.

We’ve met for lunch at his latest business venture, a boutique café and grocer in Phillip called Wheat and Oats, which opened in the old Chocolate Olive space earlier this year. Lachhu is on his lunch break from his regular job at the Royal Australian Mint, but gives no indication that he’s rushed or pressed for time.

He explains that he moved from Sydney to Canberra in 2011. He and housemate-turned-business-partner Ben Richardson opened Nepalese restaurant The Hungry Buddha at Curtin Shops soon afterwards.

Prior to opening The Hungry Buddha, he and Ben had run a small side business fixing iPhones. As you might imagine, it was a big leap from fixing phones together to setting up a restaurant from scratch.

“I don’t know what was driving us,” Lachhu admits.

“I remember my cousin telling me it will be a disaster. I remember my brother telling me owning a restaurant is a totally different ball game. Luckily my managers were supportive, giving me enough time off to plan and execute the dream.”

In February this year, the pair also opened Wheat and Oats in Colbee Court.

“When we first opened Hungry Buddha, Ben and I used to go out to cafes on Saturday mornings. A lot of the time the service and food weren’t great. It’s changed heaps now, but two or three years ago Canberra’s café scene was very different,” he explains.

When an opportunity came up to open a store in Phillip, Lachhu jumped at the opportunity to set up a boutique café and grocer that specialised in fresh food.

“It’s been four months here and I’m happy with the progress. What’s going to happen in four years? Who knows,” he says.

But while Phillip is home to a growing number of cafes, eateries and coffee shops, Lachhu says it’s unrealistic to expect a Lonsdale Street-style transformation of the industrial suburb.

“We can’t compare places like Phillip and Braddon. Wheat and Oats is surrounded by car yards, old buildings, a dog wash place and a lot of gyms. The idea for us is to get more people in, and have good-to-go food for tradies and mechanics. It’s about understanding the need of the people we can cater to now, rather than what the area can become.”

He says he’s only able to juggle so many responsibilities because he hires good staff and trusts them to keep things running smoothly.

“Without delegating, we wouldn’t have been able to branch out. You set up a business because you want the business to work for you, but that doesn’t mean you need to spend every single hour working in the business.

“One of the success factors of Hungry Buddha and being able to move on from there was looking after our staff. When you have good staff and you treat them well, you can afford to go away for a couple of weeks. Here at Wheat and Oats, it’s the same,” he says.

Lachhu plans to eventually return to Nepal and establish a foundation to improve education outcomes for local children.

“I keep saying to everybody that I’ve been in Australia for 15 years and it’s given me a lot. I’ve harnessed so many opportunities here, but it would be a waste of my lifetime if I didn’t go back to Nepal. I want every kid to have the opportunities that come from having an education. The only reason I can do what I’m doing today is because I had a good education,” he says.

“I would be based in Nepal helping kids realise their dreams, and then come back to Australia for three months every year to do business and run Hungry Buddha and Wheat and Oats. That’s why I look after my staff, because I know that in the long term, they’ll look after me too.”

In the meantime, he and Ben have raised over $10,000 to assist in the Nepal earthquake recovery through fundraising events at their restaurants. Lachhu’s Nepalese tour company, Buddha Odyssey, has also arranged three tours to Nepal to help build schools in early 2016.

Lachhu will also join his brother and some friends later this year to climb the 6200 metre Island Peak in Nepal’s Himalayan region. It is the first time they have climbed a peak of this size, and all funds raised will go to supporting porters and guides in the Everest region.

“One of the things we’re doing to raise money is hosting a dinner at the end of the month, on Hungry Buddha’s anniversary, and 100 per cent of sales from that day will go to people in the Everest region. For the whole year they will not have work because nobody is visiting after the quake, and everybody is scared.

“My friends who are going with me are trying to raise whatever they can, and I’m trying to raise whatever I can. It’s going to be a trip close to our hearts,” he says.

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