The Patel Complex
2610 W Devon Ave. Chicago, IL 60659
The Patel Brothers grocery store is a perfect example of an ethnic Indian grocery store that reflects a shifting generational history of South Asian ethnic enterprise in the United States. It is a site that resembles places that Purnima Mankekar argues are “important sites for the production of ‘Indian culture’ outside India, forcing us to re-examine the relationship between culture and territory.” The Patel Brothers website too declares that their business is more than a grocery store, “At Patel Brothers, we're committed to sharing what we know best about our Indian heritage and culture: our food. We hope to continue to educate and expose new generations to the regional diversity of India and the richness of our culture and our food. Patel Brothers is devoted to continuing its family tradition of personal service and exceptional quality. We guarantee that only the best spices and freshest foods will end up on your table. From our store to your plate, we hope to share the rich traditions of our ancestors with your family.” Food therefore acts as symbolic as well as material markers of cultural heritage. Food connects everyday family life (your dinner table) to community history (tradition and culture), nation state (India), and global economic practices (store). On the one hand, this grocery stores describe a unique sense of place while on the other hand, is a node within a global economic landscape.
The physical transformation of Patel Brothers grocery store tells us more about a history that is otherwise invisible. In early 1968, Mafat Patel and his brother Tulasi brought their family over from the small village of Bhandu in the district of Mehsana in the Indian state of Gujarat. By 1974, Patel Brothers grocery store opened on Devon Avenue, where the restaurant Ghareeb Nawaz is located currently. Susan Patel, Tulasi’s daughter fondly remembers the old store, “I remember that store, I remember that it was definitely dark and dingy and gray. Gray shelves! And it was so small— you know, we had one register, couple of rows and I remember, my dad being in the back packing spices and … and mom was a cashier.”
Their success in the grocery store business continued and soon they moved to a bigger location on 2534 W Devon Avenue at the crossing of Devon and Campbell avenues. Susan remembers that this store was bigger, “So much bigger. I remember playing tag in there and just running around in circles … just such a different concept all together and that was a lot of fun! It was a corner property so it was easy to run in and out and play on the side walk.” She remembers helping her dad, Tulasi, weigh groceries and grains while after school her older cousins, Swetal and Rakesh (Mafat’s sons) would come to help in the store. It was indeed a typical immigrant family business as described by scholars of ethnic enterprise in the United States. By 1987 the Patels had bought the current location on 2610 West Devon Avenue. In 1989 the brothers acquired the corner building on 2600 West Devon and then the building opposite, 2605-09 Devon Avenue. Much of their real-estate ownership may be invisible to a casual visitor but the Patel complex reflects the hard work that went behind their success.
Each of the stores located in the Patel complex belongs to members of the Patel family. Air Tours and Travels is handled by Mafat Patel as a global conglomerate of tour and travel agencies including AirTours Holidays and Masti Cruise Inc., all designed to cater to the cosmopolitan travel needs of South Asian customers across the world. Next door to the travel agency is Sahil, an upscale dress and clothing boutique catering to the high-end festival and marriage needs of the Indian-American community. Nirmala and Babu Patel (Susan’s mother’s younger brother and Tulasi’s brother-in-law) and their son Bhavesh, run this store. Susan Patel, Tulasi Patel’s daughter, owns Patel Brothers Handicrafts & Utensils on 2600 W Devon Avenue. Patel Café is the newest addition at the corner of this block.
As a result of their business success, the Patels started opening grocery stores in other major cities across the United States—first in New York, Houston, Atlanta, Detroit, and now extended across 52 locations supplied by 4 distribution hubs or warehouses located in Chicago, New York, Atlanta and Houston. The grocery store as we know it— rows of plantains and mangos followed by unruly bins of rice, pulses and spices — is the front end of this transnational economic enterprise. Swetal Patel compares the new Patel Brothers to the old store, “Back then, there was no pattern in the store, it was just, it was a square box … and the perimeter had shelving. Then in the center of the store, you had rows of merchandise, you know, a pallet of this and a pallet of that and on top of those pallets we just stacked more merchandise. There was no system of setting things up. It just, sort of, worked themselves out of their own, you know canned goods here, packet of spices here, barrels of beans here, flour here. And that's how the categories were made. You know, flours were flour, spices was spice, you had certain things tucked in behind the counter and … a cash drawer.”
Today’s organization of the grocery store continues to retain some such spatial layout because people expect it. Shoppers expect the South Asian grocery store to be cramped, filled with merchandise. They expect the spice bins and the pulse and flour sections in close proximity to each other. They “know” that they will find seasonal vegetables and fruits near the entrance since in the past these merchandise were located in spots where people could find them as soon as they entered. Customers still look for packaged spices and goods along the central aisles. As individuals step into the store, a sequence of encounters and sensory experiences unfold. Reconceiving the interior of the store as a series of interrelated performance spaces brings out the social and architectural complexity of the grocery store and urges us to rethink the agency of the architecture in maintaining cultural identity.
For more on Mafat, Susan and Swetal Patel see the People Section.
Text by Arijit Sen
Patel Brothers website
Story on how he manages the purchases at Patel Brothers
On his idea of Indian identity of their grocery store