How Chicago’s ‘Little India’ gave birth to the first Patel Brothers grocery store

 

In an 800-square-foot room tucked away on Chicago’s Devon Avenue, a 20-something Gujarati immigrant was on the verge of making an empire. It was 1974, and Mafat Patel had simply purchased the solely Indian grocery store for miles — a cramped reservoir of dals, spices and rice packaged in fabric luggage stacked to the ceiling.

On a hall of Chicago later nicknamed “Little India,” home-cooked meals was surprisingly laborious to come by. The road teemed with proof of the rising variety of South Asian immigrants there: sari retailers, bookstores and temples shortly proliferated. But groceries have been all however not possible to discover.

If households had the components they wanted, they in all probability introduced them from again dwelling, packed tightly into check-in suitcases or mailed in bulk by members of the family on the subcontinent.

Patel, who had immigrated from a farming village in western India, discovered that even inside a densely populated brown neighborhood like Devon’s, there was a profound sense of loneliness, he stated in a 2018 interview. The lacking piece was a scorching Indian meal at the finish of the day.

So after speaking his brother Tulsi Patel and sister-in-law Aruna into becoming a member of him in Chicago, he turned his tiny storefront into the nation’s first Patel Brothers. And Devon Avenue exploded in tandem.

“He was in a position to learn the market,” stated Happie Dutt, a historian and Chicago native who has frequented Devon Avenue since she moved to the metropolis in 1976. “‘If I really feel like this, there are various individuals who should really feel like this.’”

Over the subsequent three a long time, that 800-square-foot house would develop into the largest South Asian grocery chain in the U.S., with 53 shops throughout the nation.

Weekly journeys to Patel Brothers at the moment are near-synonymous with the South Asian American expertise. It’s the place aunties refill on every thing from okra to hair oil to masala-flavored chips whereas their children sneak Maggi noodles into the backside of the cart.

It’s a spot the place latest immigrants say they go the time to really feel the familiarity of recent meals, a cup of chai, and the language that they’re used to.

Owner's son stocking shelves in Patel Brothers store at 2542 West Devon Avenue in Chicago, November 1984.
The proprietor’s son shares cabinets in a Patel Brothers store in Chicago in November 1984.Mukul Roy / Chicago History Museum

“They’ll serve you a scorching chapati and also you’re standing there considering, ‘This is like somebody serving me at dwelling,’” Dutt stated.  The first South Asian immigrants to come to the U.S. after the 1965 Immigration and Naturalization Act have been all up towards related obstacles as Mafat Patel, now 77. Many have been alone — pupil visas have been frequent, and together with that always got here isolation. Dutt was a kind of college students, arriving to examine at the University of Florida when she was 19 in 1972.

“One of the issues everybody misses when they’re away from dwelling at such a younger age is the cooking,” she stated. And although there might need been different South Asian college students on campus, there was no assure they spoke the similar language or understood every others’ cultures.

Still, tiny enterprises started popping up to feed this rising inhabitants.

“There have been college students who had opened little retailers to promote groceries,” she stated. “Their dad and mom would ship some spices and a few dals and lentils and they might open up their lounge. They’d have them stacked, and individuals who desperately wished that turmeric or dal would purchase it off the college students.”

This was mirrored on Devon Avenue, which in the Nineteen Seventies was turning into Chicago’s latest ethnic neighborhood.

The road has all the time been a cultural potpourri, historians stated, and immigrant teams have cycled via since Chicago’s West Ridge went from empty garlic fields to a dense city middle. Now dwelling to Russians, Jews, Iraqis, Pakistanis, Indians and Bengalis, Devon’s inhabitants grew to become more and more brown in the 60s and 70s.

“If you go to Devon, you possibly can really see what’s occurring on our subcontinent,” stated Shiwali Varshney Tenner, 47, who has lived in Chicago for nearly 20 years years. “When Rohingya Muslims have been being expelled, you may see fairly a couple of of them there.”

Once dwelling to predominantly Indian immigrants and companies, the japanese portion of Devon was given the honorary title “Gandhi Marg.” The western portion, dwelling to extra Muslim establishments, was known as “Muhammad Ali Jinnah Way,” a reference to the founding father of Pakistan.

Distinct epicenters for every tradition give method to a melange of individuals, companies and cuisines. Residents say the distinctive factor about Patel Brothers was its skill to serve all of them.

“Gurjuratis shopped at Gujarati shops, individuals from the South shopped at separate shops,” Dutt stated about the time earlier than Patel Brothers. “[Mafat] introduced a broad base of things that might meet the wants of all South Asians.”

In the similar aisles which have components for chole masala, aloo gobi and hen nihari, there are additionally conventional South Indian rasams, sambars and uttapam.

Representatives from Patel Brothers didn’t reply to a request for remark.

When Varshney Tenner first arrived in Chicago, she was beginning her life over. As an Indian immigrant and former New Yorker, she lacked any ties to the metropolis, however she instantly gravitated to Devon.

“I lived downtown, however after all I used to be lacking Indian meals and I wanted my staples, the rice and the spices,” she stated.

So she went to Patel Brothers. At the time it was a small, bare-bones store, however she was in a position to seize a little bit of dwelling there regardless. “I discovered ganna juice there,” she stated. “I nearly cried.”

Varshney Tenner has usually returned to Devon for garments and meals. In her searches for classical Indian dance put on, she made pals with lots of the enterprise house owners in Little India. Years handed in Chicago, and her group slowly expanded.

“Just the skill to communicate in Hindi, it feels good,” she stated. “I acquired into phases of making an attempt to discover the greatest biryani. So I might get my pals collectively and we tried biryani at each single place. We did the similar with anda parathas.”

People eating at Food and Flavor on Devon Avenue in Chicago, December 1984.
Diners at Food and Flavor on Devon Avenue in Chicago in December 1984.Mukul Roy / Chicago History Museum

While gentrification slowly claims South Asian mainstays in large cities, akin to “Curry Row” in New York’s East Village, Devon Avenue’s “Little India” stays. It’s modified, although, group members say. Many companies proceed to thrive, however some cater extra to vacationers, and others have adopted the immigrant households which have largely left.

“People hold saying that it’s inferior to it used to be,” Varshney Tenner stated. “And I see the high quality is hit and miss now for meals. Some of the actually good eating places…they’re in the suburbs.”

The Patel Brothers on Devon Avenue is now not a tiny room the place prospects have to shuffle sideways, weaving between cabinets of merchandise to seize a bag of masoor. Its vivid inexperienced and white storefront mirrors these of its branches in locations like Flushing, New York and Chandler, Arizona and Suwanee, Georgia, far corners of the nation the place a brand new diaspora era will come of age, wandering the sweets part or snacking on a bag of Kurkure as their dad and mom push them in the carts.

“It’s change into an establishment,” Dutt stated.

 

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