In 2008, Sadhana Raj founded a small vegan eatery in Chandler with little more than a rice cooker and a $20 plug-in griddle. In 2014, she moved to a larger space on Guadalupe Road in Tempe, substantially scaling her “botanically inspired” fare and fresh-squeezed juice. She quickly garnered a group of devoted fans, who came for her healthy food and stayed for the strong sense of community.
Last week, the Valley bid a reluctant farewell to the beloved restaurant. “Our landlord decided not to renew our lease at our current location for the next year,” Raj says.
Raj always tells people that one of her biggest goals is to live an intentional life – one where decisions are made in response to a need with passion and commitment. She has carried those values throughout her 13-year journey as the owner of 24 Carrots.
Amid the pandemic, Raj says she and her team doubled down on those principles, providing support to their nonprofit partners who did not have access to relief initiatives like the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP). “Historically, we had always said yes anytime someone asked for help,” Raj says. “We didn’t want to start saying no when the need for help was highest.”
She partnered with the WISH Foundation, a volunteer-run organization that support children empowerment endeavors in the Valley, to create the Carrots Cares program. “We decided to take our community’s fundraised dollars and use them for getting supplies and then use our PPP funds to make sure that our team members were being compensated to make these meals,” she explains. “We were able to deliver meals to a number of nonprofit partners throughout the Valley.”
At the same time, Raj closed the restaurant’s dining room and turned it into a place to gather supplies for Mutual Aid Phoenix and the Navajo Nation.
Raj calls 24 Carrots a passion project. “I’ve always loved food. I have always been a people person and I truly love our community,” she says. The pandemic somewhat stifled that passion, she admits. “One of the reasons why we had done this is to show our team that no matter what challenges you face, if you work together and if you have a purpose and direction, you will always be fulfilled.”
And they were. Raj retained all of her staff and continued to support her community throughout the pandemic. She has been guided by the Khalil Gibran quote, “Work is love made visible” throughout her career as a chef and business owner. “We all have jobs. If we are lucky enough to be given the opportunity of stewardship of other people’s jobs, one of the things to consider is that there is the attitude that work is just work. You get through it and work enables life, but if you take some time to find those little nooks and crannies in your everyday life that you love, then work can be love,” she says. Admittedly, Raj has had her fair share of difficult days and tedious tasks, but she says she has always felt fulfilled.
Raj reflects on the past 13 years, transforming her “tiny little restaurant with only 10 items and no kitchen” into a juice bar, restaurant, bakery and caterer. “All of this happened because we never got tired of doing the work, even though the work was tiring,” she says.
Her passion for community, education and advocacy for food insecurity is palpable. “I didn’t grow up in an incredibly affluent family, but my parents were hard-working and made sure that we had a realistic view of what it takes to survive in this world,” she explains. “Growing up, my parents would always take us to various shelters to support in serving, cooking and cleaning. I’ve never felt too distant from that.”
In college, Raj met her best friend, a Muslim woman who introduced her to Ramadan, a month dedicated to fasting, prayer, reflection and community in the Islamic religion. Raj began fasting with her friend, forgoing food and water from sunup to sundown.
“I have an abundance of recipes, an abundance of food, I’m surrounded by delicious and wonderful things to eat all day long. Remembering and recognizing what being hungry and thirsty felt like was that much more important [when I started 24 Carrots],” she says. “I felt like as someone who was in the restaurant industry, it was even more important to me to understand that hunger and thirst are very real aspects of our community and to always keep that in my mind and in my heart.”
Fast-forward several years and Raj gained the financial ability to fund small projects that helped support organizations addressing food insecurity. Sometimes it was as simple as donating burritos. After a few years of these initiatives, Raj got an email from the Phoenix Collegiate Academy asking her to teach students about healthy eating options. “When I was teaching at the school, I would bring a lot of extra produce with me or I would bring ingredients and we would try a recipe out,” she recalls. “We would always cook a lot more food than we needed, and we would just pass it out to all the kids and the teachers that were there after school.”
From there, Raj got involved with fellow Valley chef Charleen Badman’s Blue Watermelon Project, a grassroots organization that advocates for changes in systemic food systems. In 2020, they provided 24,000 healthy, sustainable meals for five local school districts. Raj was later invited to the James Beard Foundation Boot Camp, which opened her eyes to a number of national endeavors that were addressing the issue of food insecurity that could be better supported in Arizona. She was then accepted as a fellow at the Leading for Change program, where she learned “how to take an idea and give it the support it needs to be empowered into action.”
When she felt it was safe to do so, Raj reopened the restaurant. Customers came out in droves. “Those who were able to afford to eat here were not shy in their support. We’re so grateful for that but there are so many individuals that may be able to afford to eat here but who we could, with our community support, afford to feed them,” she says. That’s why Raj is dedicated to donating her kitchen equipment to nonprofits, culinary programs and schools, who may continue the work in her stead.
Now, it’s time for the next chapter.
The future of her employees is Raj’s top priority right now. Many are interviewing at restaurants around the Valley that share the same values and culinary philosophy as 24 Carrots. “These are the people that supported my joy day in and day out. They’re the people who stayed by my side even during the toughest of times,” she says. “I just wanted to make sure that they had the opportunity to make a choice for themselves, not out of desperation but from a position of strength.”
24 Carrots had previously supplied chai to Peixoto Coffee Roasters and The Coronado. Without a commercial kitchen from which to create the high-quality blend, Raj will no longer be able to provide her products. “If the future allows, I would love to be able to offer that not only to other restaurants but to our community in general,” she says. She adds that she will keep customers posted on potential pop-ups, private events and partnerships. She will continue to stay connected on Facebook and Instagram.
How does she want 24 Carrots to be remembered? “I hope that people have always felt like they belong here,” Raj says. “I hope that’s one thing that we’ve consistently offered our community because they’ve given me a place to belong.”
She also hopes that her goals of intention extend to her customers and co-workers. “I want people to choose us independent of just a dietary constraint or a choice. I want them to choose us, and they have,” she says. “They’ve chosen us because they enjoyed a meal here, they’ve chosen us because they were greeted with a warm smile, they’ve chosen us because we met them in a park and passed out burritos next to them. And I would say I hope they feel like every day, we chose them as well. If we’ve left an impact, I hope that’s it.”
Raj adds that she is grateful for “every single person who has put in effort and time and energy toward building 24 Carrots for both the community and myself.” Right now, she doesn’t see another restaurant on the horizon, but is open to whatever the future holds for her.
“I feel like it’s that precipice of the fall when you’re on a roller coaster. You’re a little excited, a little bit fearful, a little overwhelmed, bracing yourself and you don’t entirely know what that journey’s going to be, but you know it’s going to change your life.”