NEW YORK -- The site of a former Key Food unit here has metamorphosed into a new kind of grocery store -- an Indian-American supermarket.
Patel Bros. is located on a bustling street lined with retail businesses -- sari shops, jewelry stores that sell 24-carat gold from South Asia and video outlets where films and music from the subcontinent are sold. This is the "Little India" section of Jackson Heights, Queens, a small, thriving South-Asian enclave sandwiched between two Hispanic neighborhoods, and home to people of Indian, Pakistani and Bangladeshi descent.
The grocer moved from a smaller space across the street into its current unit about a year ago, according to Sam Patel, vice president of sales. The Chicago-based company runs 27 grocery stores in 15 states, including Illinois, Georgia, Maryland, Ohio, Mississippi, California and Texas. Stores range in size from 3,000 to 9,000 square feet -- the size of the Jackson Heights unit, which is Patel's largest. According to Sam Patel, the company plans to expand all its existing stores over the next three years.
The Jackson Heights store has kept to a supermarket format, but the building was redone in a green and gold design, both inside and outside. During SN's visit, signs in the front window advertised a buy-one, get-one special on 10-pound bags of basmati rice, an $8.99 special on 4 pounds of salty pista, and a $6.99 special on 4 pounds of almonds.
On the front end, a variety of juices, fruit drinks and sodas were case stacked on the wall in front of the cash registers. A large floor display of Pepsi, Coke, Hawaiian Punch and Mountain Dew was also placed on the front end. Two-liter Coke was on sale for $1.19 during SN's visit.
The first aisle at Patel Bros., on the left side, begins with 10 doors of dairy and 10 doors of frozen food. Frozen Indian entrees, dinners, snack foods and desserts dominate the frozen section. There is a small amount of vegetables in this section: La Fe brand of pigeon peas, mixed vegetables and corn, plain onion rings, French fries, peas and carrots and chopped spinach.
Desserts are also Indian specialties, such as Joy and Rajbog Indian ice cream, in flavors like saffron pistachio, rose, strawberry, mango and chocolate. Indian entrees, from Green Guru and Deep, are items like masala dosa with chutney, bhindi masala and vegetable jalfrazi.
The back of this aisle, as well as a section on the back wall, is dedicated to spices, the essential ingredient in Indian cuisine. Two large signs also identify these sections. A tremendous variety of spices, in a number of sizes, packages, bags and jars, can be found at Patel's. These include cumin, coriander, chili powder, masalas (mixtures of spices), white pepper, sendhav salt, mustard seed, fennel, bay leaves and so forth.
Two of the dominant brands are Swad and Oldu. Indeed, the Swad brand can be found in most of the categories throughout the store. It is the private label for Raja Foods, which is Patel's distribution and wholesaling division. Raja Foods supplies both Patel's stores and other retailers, including mainstream supermarkets like Tops Friendly Markets, Buffalo, N,Y.; Jungle Jim's in Cincinnati; and Harry's Farmer's Market in Atlanta, according to Sam Patel. Many of the products under the Swad name originate in India, although some are packed in the United States.
The back wall is also used to merchandise beans and dahls (pulses). Fifteen feet are dedicated to such items as split moong (a split bean), toor dahl, urad dahl, sabudana (tapioca), white vatana (peas), green chana (a type of chick pea), kidney beans, black-eyed beans and so forth. Since a significant portion of the Indian population is traditionally vegetarian, grains and beans are an essential part of the diet. None of Patel's stores carry meat or fish, although they also cater to Pakistani shoppers (who are Muslim and meat eaters). Sam Patel told SN that about 50% of Indians in America are vegetarian. He also said that about 80% of Patel's shoppers are South Asian.
"We have the best price in town on nuts, for example," Patel said, "all over the country. During Christmas we have 5-pound bags of almonds, cashews, peanuts and raisins on sale." He went on say that low prices, as well as the availability of certain specialty items, draw non-Asian shoppers to Patel's stores.
Next to the dahls are 13 feet of flours, such as sooji (cream of wheat), corn, rice and chappati flour (for making flatbread). Pillsbury white flour can also be found in this section. The back wall is also used to merchandise a large variety of canned and jarred condiments, pastes, chutneys and similar items. Almost all the canned items are imported, mostly from India. There are also some products from Pakistan.
On the wall on the right side of the store are canned vegetables from India, including such exotic items as yam, lotus root and "drumsticks" (saragova); and canned fruits from Thailand, such as jackfruit and banana blossom lychees in heavy syrup.
The canned and frozen vegetable sections are modest, no doubt because customers mostly use fresh vegetables. One entire aisle and another half-aisle on the left side of the store are dedicated to fresh produce, with Indian specialties dominating the section.
Ghee products -- clarified butter used as cooking oil -- are given about 12 feet of space at Patel's. American corn and vegetable oils are also available in this section. Other packaged Indian specialties on the periphery included dessert mixes (for example custard powders and mixes to make sweet dessert balls), bread and dahl cake mixes, noodles, black and jasmine tea and instant drink mixes.
Dominating the right side of the store are large floor stacks of rices and flours, in 10-, 20- and 40-pound bags. There are also Hispanic brand rices at Patel's, like Canilla. Next to the floor stacks is an aisle where more grain products are merchandised, including "beaten" rice, mixed chanas, barley, whole wheat, sesame seeds and so forth. Also in this aisle are a variety of cardamom (a spice used in desserts) -- black, green, crushed, whole, and so forth -- and raisins, nuts and dried fruits.
The inside aisles of the store are used to merchandise some Hispanic groceries (30 feet of Goya products); mainstream items like boxed cereals, tomatoes, beans, jelly, instant drinks, canned nuts, chips and cookies; paper products; laundry detergent and other household cleansers; and assorted health and beauty care products -- both mainstream and ethnic.