Month: October 2012

Patel Brothers: The Journey of an Indian Grocery Store

By Phurbu Thinley
This article was originally published on NYU NewsDoc

Grocery stores of all kinds and sizes are a common sight in Jackson Heights in Queens. But Patel Brothers grocery store on 74th Street stands out for its sheer size and popularity as one-stop shopping for people of South Asian descent.

Patel Brothers on 74 Street in Jackson Heights, Queens

When you step into this grocery store with 7,500 square feet of space and with a basement store equally as large, it seems to be offering every ingredient crucial for Indian cooking. There is an entire aisle of variety of rice, a section devoted to Dals (lentils) and beans, and enormous sections for Indian spices, pickles, snacks and sweets, and even utensils. And, of course, not to mention the two whole aisles devoted to vegetables and fruits. There is also a small section of Ayurvedic and Indian herbal products. More than 90 percent of the store’s goods are imported from India, mainly from Gujarat, with rest comprised of American goods that are useful in Indian cooking.

“In a country like U.S., especially in Jackson Heights or elsewhere in Queens, where Indians are the second largest Asian group after Chinese, there is a huge market for Indian grocery,” said Harshad Patel, owner of Patel Brothers.

Patel Brothers counts 95 percent of its customers are Indian and people of South Asian descent, including sizeable Tibetan and Bhutanese communities from the neighborhood.

This grocery store in Jackson Heights is a branch of the Patel Brothers chain, one of the fastest growing Indian food chains in the U.S. With over 54 stores across the U.S., primarily along the Eastern Seaboard, it is by far the largest Indian grocery chain in the country. The family-owned business also carries its own brands of products, including “SWAD” foods.

The business was started by two of Harshad Patel’s uncles – Mafat Patel and his younger brother Tulsi Patel – in 1974 when they bought a small Indian store on Devon Avenue in Chicago.

According to Harshad Patel, at the time there were no other Indian grocery store in Chicago. Within a few years, the Patel Brothers’ business began to grow rapidly as the Indian community began to grow in the U.S. By the early 1980s, they decided to expand their business outside of Chicago.

What started out as a single family-owned grocery store has now expanded into a national food chain with the company adding at least one or two stores each year. In the New York tri-state area alone, the Patels boast of 12 stores – four in New York City (three of which are in Queens), six in New Jersey, and two in Connecticut. The store in Jackson Heights is one of the chain’s top sellers.

“Our monthly sale is somewhere between $1.2 and $1.3 million,” said Patel. He, however, refused to divulge further financial details, saying the company had adopted a strict approach not to reveal them.

According to cashier Akash Patel the grocery store attracts between 1,500 to 2,000 customers on weekdays. “And on weekends we attract close to 4,000 customers on an average basis,” Akash Patel added.

Rasila Shah, a 60-year-old Indian American currently residing in New Rochelle has been coming to the Jackson Heights store regularly since moving from Queens two years ago. Before that she used to shop at the Hillside store.

“Patel brothers is my one-stop shopping place and I come here once in a week or two to get my kitchen supplies,” said Shah in Hindi. “I get this Indian atmosphere when I step into this grocery store. You see all the masala [powdered spices], vegetables like Karela [bitter guard] and different kinds of chawal [rice].”

Jay Khatri, a resident of Jackson Heights, frequents the grocery store. “I do come here [Patel Brothers] quite often because my store is right across the street,” said Khatri. He noted Apna Bazar and Sabzi Mandi, other big Indian stores in Jackson heights, were other options depending what he needed and the quality of the products and the prices each of them offers.

Despite its size, Patel Brothers is still very much a family business. “All the Patel Brothers units are owned by immediate family members, and there has been no opening for public franchise,” said Harshad Patel. The newest store will open next month in Orlando, Florida. “So it is still a family-owned business.”