An article on the Indian product selling supermarket chain Patel Brothers:
“I bought four sacks of flour, two galleons of milk, one sack of potatoes, 1 sack of rice and green peppers!” says Jyantibhai Patel, with a smile, as he points to the personal, black grocery cart he is wheeled around in the store.
He is standing outside an enormous green awning that screams PATEL BROTHERS in white, displaying his cement sack-like bags of produce.
Patel, 42, is from Corona, Queens. However, his roots trace back to the Indian state of Gujarat. So when he misses food from his motherland he comes here, to Patel Brothers, to stock up.
“I’ve been coming to this store for two years and I’ve met all sorts of people. Greeks, Jamaicans, Colombians. Why do they come? I think they like the Indian food. They like it spicy”, he says with a wink.
Patel Brothers is the largest Indian grocery chain in the United States. They import over 90 percent of their product from India and Pakistan, and have since developed a strong following within the Indian community in the country and, more specifically, in Jackson Heights. Started in Chicago 1974 by brothers, Mafat and Tulsi Patel, there are now 43 stores across the United States and five alone in New York.
Standing on the sidewalk and peering into his beige plastic shopping bag is Neil Dorfman, 51, from Forest Hills, Queens. “I usually come here for the fresh produce. Prices are very good, but I love the chutneys, the spices and the chili peppers. I’m not Indian, nor do I have any particular attachment to Indian food, but I try and stop by when I can.” Dorfman bought five oranges.
Once through the glass double doors, watched over by an intimidating Sikh employee, one man catches the eye. Dressed in jeans, a casual grey jacket and dark rimmed glasses he may seem like just another customer, but observe him for long and you will notice the quiet, whispered orders he hands out and the scrutinizing gaze he casts upon his checkout line. He is Nandu Patel, 61, from Long Island, the store manager. He is proud of his ‘dukaan’ (store), he says in Hindi, because, “the neighborhood is a great mix of people. We try hard to service their needs the best we can.”
Nandu is not alone in his effort to cater to the requirements of the immigrant population in Jackson Heights. According to a report by the Center For An Urban Future, between 1994-2004 the Jackson Heights neighborhood has seen a 14.3 percent rise in immigrant owned businesses. The same report also noted that overall employment rose by 6.9 percent in the city, compared to 27.9 percent in Jackson Heights, during the same period.
“$1.99? or $2.99?!”, yells Pravin Govind, 49, in Hindi, at an employee down the isle. He is by the fridges checking frozen food and lentils, but his co-worker is slow to reply. “He is taking so long.. What is the price! Two dollars or three?!”
Govind lives in Jackson Heights and has been working in the store for 12 years. When he first arrived the store was always, “busy, busy, busy! No time to rest.” The rise in the number of families hailing from the Indian subcontinent has risen in the last few years bringing with it, according to Govind, not just more customers but more competition.
“It’s not like before. Now there are a lot more Indian stores. Before, we were one of the few,” he says, “I think people saw how well we all did, and wanted to do the same.”
The boom in business also saw a boom in competition for the store. They did have one advantage over their rivals- a personal touch. Patel Brothers was originally a family-owned and run store in Chicago. Even now, 37 years and 42 new stores on, they try and keep the chain within the family. “I’m their (Mafat and Tulsi’s) cousin!” says Nandu as he greets customers at the door, “They trusted me with running this location.” The chain, regardless of how much it has grown, is essentially still a family run business, creating hands-on, people-greeting managers like Nandu.
This sense of community within the store is one of the reasons it has done so well since its introduction into the Jackson Heights community in 1984. Catering to many different immigrant ethnicities the store has some customers who come back repeatedly purely due to loyalty. One such customer is Poonsiam Pong. Pong, 65, who is originally from China, but has lived in Jackson Heights for the last 35 years, has watched the store grow from humble beginnings. He was standing over a produce tray laden with small green chilies, 99 cents a pound, picking out only the red and orange ones. “I was here before them [Patel Brothers]!”, he says proudly, “I remember when there were no other stores in the area but them. I’ve always come here, for 30 years, I like the food, the people, I don’t need to go anywhere else.”
The Jackson Heights store itself is large. It seems to cater to both households and wholesale. There are five wide rows that divide the warehouse like structure. The first isle is lined with large fridges, for frozen foods and ready-to-cook meals. The next is lined with dry powders, spices and fruit. In between the isles is a large space for fresh produce. This is where most of the customers throng together, creating a busy highway of ‘excuse me’s, ‘sorry’s and ‘that was my grapefruit!’s. Past the produce the walls are stacked with large sacks of rice, salt and sugar. Masoori rice, Basmati rice and Idli rice, all one on top of another. Ceiling to floor, it seems like a bunker during a nuclear apocalypse. At the very end there are care products and brand names from India.
Julio Alvado, 37, is found stacking dry powders and conversing in Gujarati with fellow employee P.B. Patel. Gujarati is the regional dialect of the people of the Indian state of Gujarat. This language is barely spoken outside the state yet Alvado, originally from Mexico, can hold a basic conversation with Patel with ease. He says he knows Hindi as well, finding it an easier language to learn.
Alvado, who has worked at the store for four years, perhaps best sums up what this Patel Brothers store has done for the community. By just existing for as long as it has, and enduring a change in the demographic and layout of the neighborhood, the store has brought together various communities that might not have come together organically.
Before leaving he turns, gives a shy smile and says in Hindi, “bahar se Mexican, andar se Indian.”
‘Mexican on the outside, Indian on the inside.’