Susan Patel is home | Feature | Chicago Reader

Susan Patel is home 

Her family owns the largest Indian grocery store chain in America. So why has she never felt like she fit the traditional mold of a “Brown kid”?

Sign up for our newsletters Subscribe

ADITI DAMLE
  • Aditi Damle

Susan Patel greets me like she's my cool aunt. She's warm and friendly and very blunt. She's one of the Patels, the family that owns Patel Brothers, the largest Indian grocery store chain in America, and she has opinions.

"I always tell my family, why are you buying more Patel Brothers? It dies with these baby boomers," she tells me. "I'm like, these younger generations are just gonna not go to Patel Brothers anymore. They're just going to buy it online. Or they're going to go to your ready-made section. They're not buying the grains or anything anymore. They don't cook." This feels like a personal attack, like she's family, like in addition to defending my generation I need to explain the viability of my chosen career and how I'm "too busy" for a husband right now.

The 44-year-old wears a wedding ring on one hand, a turquoise gem on the other. Dressed in a leaf-print tunic, jeans, and flats, she's bubbly and gestures wildly as she speaks. If you didn't know her, you might not know that she's perpetually overcommitted and overbooked, because she's so engaged in our conversation, and not the type of busy person that makes you feel bad about how less-busy you are. A self-described wiseass, Patel owned the now-shuttered Patel Handicrafts, a store that sold Vinod pressure cookers and silverware sets and tongue cleaners and Hindu artifacts. She lives nearby with her husband Neal, nine-year-old daughter Laila, and, much to the chagrin of every Indian aunty with an opinion—which is to say, all of them—a dog.

Today there are 57 Patel Brothers locations across the country, and the entire Patel enterprise—which also includes a travel agency, a clothing store, and a cafe—is worth $140 million, according to Food52. Pushing around a cart at the Patel Brothers on Devon is brave. It takes significant maneuvering around families who shop in packs, middle-aged men who grab cardboard cases of mangoes (the peels end up on seats of the 49B bus, a true marker that summer has arrived), and stray kids who play tag in the aisles. If it's a Saturday, prepare to get your ankles whacked by a cart wheeled by an aunty making a beeline for the fresh karela. It's not personal—her parking meter is just running low. And even after all these years, you can still find the founders of Patel Brothers and the architects of Devon, Mafat and Tulsi Patel, circling around the store, stocking shelves and inspecting merchandise.

Susan Patel has always had a place for herself on Devon. Still, she wants to prove that she's more than her last name. "I don't think anyone should hold a space as our token brownie, token Guju, token Muslim woman, token Hindu. I just feel like some people want to say, 'I'm it,'" she says. "I never came on Devon and assumed a role, like this is who I am. You have to earn your keep. Devon does not like outsiders."

When I tell my mom I'm writing about Susan Patel, I say that she's the daughter of Tulsi Patel. "Oh, Tulsi Bhai?" my mom says, as if it's common knowledge that she knows him. "I didn't realize he had a daughter!" I ask her how she knows him. "Beta, we've been here for 30 years," she tells me, not masking that she's dumbfounded. "In 30 years, of course we'd get to know him. We've all been here for so long. Beta, you know him."

Like Patel, I grew up in a Gujarati family in Skokie, though a generation later. (I'm in my 20s.) Two years ago at the Patel Brothers on Devon, I had wandered away from my mom and studied the fried chickpea mixes filling a double row of massive metal barrels in the fresh snack aisle. An older man with kind eyes and a gentle voice, and wearing a gray vest, asked me if I was lost. It was Tulsi Patel, who my mom says would chide my father about buying chewing tobacco or pan masala because he knew it could destroy your teeth. "Even though it would help his business, he told Milit not to buy it," she remembers. "That's the kind of person he is."

Devon's South Asian enclave may never have blossomed if in 1968 Mafat Patel hadn't emigrated from the western state of Gujarat to get his MBA at Indiana University. He was part of the first wave of Indian immigrants that entered through the Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965, which created immigration routes through skilled labor and family reunification. After moving to Chicago in the early 70s Mafat was frustrated by the void in Indian cuisine. He enlisted the help of his brother Tulsi and Tulsi's wife Aruna, who then came to America; his wife, Chanchal, also joined later. Together, they launched the first Patel Brothers grocery store in 1974, a rickety storefront on Devon, in the middle of a mostly Orthodox Jewish neighborhood. Today, it's a place where you can find the vegetables and spices for an elaborate curry, Britannia biscuits and Haldiram's snacks, kulfi ice cream, and Thums Up soda. It's Trader Joe's for Brown people.

Susan Patel played volleyball and soccer at Niles West High School. Her parents didn't mind that she didn't want to be on Devon much when she was in high school. Sometimes she'd drive up to the curb after practice and wait while a Patel Brothers employee handed her a bag of groceries because her parents didn't think a sports bra and shorts were appropriate attire for a modest teenager. She spent time with her predominantly white high school friends. "I just didn't hang around Indians," she says. "Not that I had anything against Indians, I just didn't trust the intentions."

To her, the Indian community felt oppressively tight-knit. If someone saw Patel at a party or out late at night, they'd snitch on her to her dad at the store. People would tell her parents if she was seen talking to a guy. Or spending time with guys and girls, even if they were just sitting in a parking lot. Her voice jumps an octave when I ask how often this happened. "All the time. All the time. I finally had to be like, Yeah I'm at a party. What do you want me to be, a nun? I'm like, I'm going out with my friends. I'm not doing anything wrong." Her parents dragged her to Bollywood concerts and then made her sit on a couch backstage so they didn't waste a ticket on her. This was one of the perks, and unusual punishments, of being a Patel.

She felt like she didn't have anything in common with most Indians her age, other than being Indian. "I was always deemed as like whitewashed or Oreo"—meaning just like the cookie she was brown on the outside and white on the inside—"just because I didn't give into the Indian thing," she says. "They were like, 'because we're Indian, we have to get along.' We have to have things in common other than what we look like."

Patel went to Northeastern Illinois University to study teaching for a year before transferring to Long Island University, Southampton. She studied abroad in India for two semesters. In those days, not many people outside of her family even knew what Patel looked like. She was the "mystery child" of Tulsi Bhai. "I always knew I would come back," she says.

Eight years later, she did just that and settled into teaching math and science at a Chicago charter school and met her future husband, who lived in the same building. ("Funny, I never thought I was going to marry an Indian. Who knew?") After only a year of teaching, and as she grappled with whether she had made the correct career choice, she says, life happened. Her marriage was postponed when her aunt died, and she got a job as a hostess at her family's restaurant on Devon. But the hours were grueling, and she wanted to have a life where she could spend time with her family. She soon got a job as an assistant director at the Indo-American Center (IAC) on Devon, a nonprofit that serves the South Asian immigrant community.

In late 2007, Patel took out a loan and purchased Patel Handicrafts from the Patel Brothers company in 2008, and it became her baby. Despite owning a store stocked with statues of gods like Lakshmi (the goddess of wealth) and Saraswati (the goddess of knowledge) that she carefully selected on visits to India, Patel didn't know much about Hindu mythology. (In her defense, there are a lot of gods; I wouldn't be able to answer a Jeopardy! question about most of them.) When she worked at the store, senior citizens would stop by and ask her to translate documents, and school field trips would come with questions. Patel brings her hands to her hips. In a deep voice, her best schoolteacher impression, she says, "'And now we're here from this elementary school, can you tell us a little bit about Ram and Krishna?' and I'm like, 'What? I don't know the story.' Oh my god, I'm like, Googling to figure it out." She eventually learned from studying Hindu texts like the Bhagavad Gita.

"We are told to do, not to think," Patel says. It's an old way of saying that being an Indian immigrant, especially a Gujarati, means you're expected to be practical. There's one way to load a dishwasher. There's one way to scoop rice out of a pan (start from the side, not the middle). Water should never linger around the edges of the sink. Gujarati food is simple and cheap and for the masses. Dal (lentils), bhat (rice), shaak (veggies). The Patel Brothers motto, she says, is "Keep it cheap and fast."

Patel admits she does like the simple things. Her brother Michael, she tells me, has three sports cars and six gym memberships, and while she could theoretically get free groceries for life, she chooses not to. Recently she checked into the Spirit Airlines terminal on Facebook, arguably the truest mark of a Guju. But like many second-generation kids, Patel knows she doesn't fit the traditional mold of a "Brown kid." Patel wants my generation of Gujaratis and South Asian Americans to not be constrained by tradition, but instead think about what they do.

While my family didn't own the biggest Indian grocery chain in America, I understand what she's saying. In my family, doing means talking. I don't know if having the social energy of an entire Red Bull street team is Gujarati-specific, but sometimes when my family gets together from around the country it seems like it. "We're a hyper-ass people," says my best friend, whose last name is also Patel. "Gujaratis have zero chill."

This is especially true for aunties. There's always an aunty to comment on your life: Loud Aunty, Gossip Aunty, Warm Aunty, Wine Aunty (who will have exactly one glass of wine), Packing-You-Snacks-In-A-Ziploc-Before-You-Go-Clubbing Aunty, Tactless-But-Wants-The-Best-For-You Aunty.

This is where, like Patel, I don't fit in with what's expected: I am Quiet Aunty. I am happy sitting on a couch, wrapped in a blanket, wordless, like a devastatingly beautiful young woman in a Bollywood film who has just learned a terrible, terrible secret. Sure, I am absolutely capable of mingling with guests, holding four babies, and sending the family WhatsApp group an encouraging "Interesting!" to some video of pseudoscience health advice about how grapes can fix your bad personality. But my favorite part of family functions is locking myself in the bathroom, hoisting my phone two inches from my face, and Googling the details of that lady getting sucked out of that Southwest flight window. Now that I'm older and a young aunty myself, I understand that being quiet doesn't make me less Gujarati or less a part of my family. I want to be the kind of aunty that makes things easier for the next quiet kid in my family. I hope that even with some Gujarati-isms ingrained in them, the next generation can arbitrate their identities on their own terms.

In October, a long-awaited Patel Brothers opened in Niles. According to the Chicago Tribune, as well as my mom in three phone calls, the grand opening attracted hordes of shoppers, some of whom waited for hours in the rain. "There was so much pushing," my mom said. "But they had free samosas." I asked if she'd still go to the Devon location once in a while, if only for the sake of nostalgia. I can hear her shaking her head through the phone with the same vigor as the one time she watched MTV2: "Nooo. No, no, no."

Patel Brothers is buying out strip malls in the suburbs, which means South Asian suburbanites don't have a reason to drive to the old neighborhood. Now they can grab Patel Brothers groceries, go to a Patel Brothers travel agent, get Patel Brothers fast food, and stop by a Patel Brothers jewelry store, all without leaving Naperville.

Devon hasn't suffered the massive gentrification of other ethnic neighborhoods like Logan Square and Pilsen, yet the neighborhood has changed. Dulhan's, a clothing and jewelry store, is closing after 30 years. A large sign in the window shouts: "It has been an absolute joy and blessing to serve every one of you | Love * Gratitude Yogi * Raj (owners Dulhan's)." The shopkeeper affixes a cardboard "STORE CLOSE OUT!" poster atop a shiny gray Mercedes parked outside. Red and green balloons bounce off of tinsel-covered lamp posts, dancing to funk-inspired music blasting through the front door. Across the street, Andaaz Jewelers sits vacant since the business moved to the suburbs. While chains like Joyalukkas and Malabar have built marble storefronts in the past year, they hover over mom-and-pop shops like Vitha and NP Jewelers.

One street over at Punjabi Dhaba, the lunch rush is slow and the restaurant's owner, an old man in a billowing white kurta, stands on a ladder and fiddles with the sign. A customer walks up to the entrance and waits a few seconds before he says, "Excuse me." The owner pauses, then scrambles down. "Oh! You want to eat here?"

Even if Patel Brothers is driving business away from Devon, Susan Patel is still pushing for a revitalization of the neighborhood. She sits on the Indo-American Democratic Organization's board and has been working with the West Ridge Chamber of Commerce to increase collaboration between Devon shopkeepers and encourage civic engagement. She worries about the lack of South Asian solidarity, especially along class lines. If Brown people can raise money, erect beautiful temples, and have representation in government, she asks, why can't we be farther along?

"The rich don't want to help the poor," she says. "Trump has been good for a lot of South Asians in letting them stay exactly where they want to be." She sees the unity in other culturally diverse communities and sees what's missing in her own. "We're so fragmented as is," she says. "So how do we get this group of people together on the same page? What's going to be that one thing that's going to bring us all together?"

When I ask Patel what she wants for Devon and the next generation of South Asians, she spins out idea after idea. She sold the Patel Handicrafts retail space back to her family and is selling the remaining merchandise as a wholesaler. She's working on a home and lifestyle brand catering to South Asian millennials called Bhandu Ethnics, named after her family's village in Gujarat. Her dream is to launch a cultural academy where kids can learn of Hindu mythology and holidays. She wants younger South Asians to have a reason to come to Devon.

Then she flips the question. "What do you want?"

To me it's remarkable that Devon has lasted as long as it has. Without Devon, we may never have gotten to know Maggi noodles and Rooh Afza, or mehndi cones and the Dabur Amla hair oil that smells just like your grandma. Reena's ice cream from Patel Brothers was the closest thing I had to a key chain with my name on it. Devon was a refuge for generations of Desis. It gave kids like me a window into their immigrant parents' home country and expanded our own idea of home.

I tell Patel that even if Devon loses its identity as a South Asian enclave, it might gain another identity as another cultural hub for a new immigrant population. For now, I can count on familiar sights: the restaurant Tiffin serving enough white people for other white people to not feel intimidated, and enough Indian people for other Indian people to trust it; the older woman, head wrapped in a cerulean hijab, sitting on a milk crate outside Patel Brothers holding a bouquet of balloons; the extensive frozen meal section inside Patel Brothers that caters to the needs of millennial microwave chefs; the fresh sugarcane juice, especially in the summer.

"I want to go to people in your generation, and be like, 'OK, what are the ten things you need in your home?'" Patel says. "I don't want to sell another spoon ever again."  v

Support Independent Chicago Journalism: Join the Reader Revolution

We speak Chicago to Chicagoans, but we couldn’t do it without your help. Every dollar you give helps us continue to explore and report on the diverse happenings of our city. Our reporters scour Chicago in search of what’s new, what’s now, and what’s next. Stay connected to our city’s pulse by joining the Reader Revolution.

Are you in?

  Give $35/month →  
  Give $10/month →  
  Give  $5/month  → 

Not ready to commit? Send us what you can!

 One-time donation  → 

Comments (10)

Showing 1-10 of 10

Add a comment

 
Subscribe to this thread:
Showing 1-10 of 10

Add a comment

More by Rima Parikh

Popular Stories