The South Asian Times

21 May 2019 12:58 PM

Patel Brothers: Catering to community's one basic need

By SATimes Team

What began as immigrants trying to make a place for themselves and their ethnicity in a promising new land by starting close-knit family businesses, has today become ubiquitous and distinctly American success stories. And no other family business represents this reality better than Patel Brothers.

Patel Brothers is among the oldest and the largest Indian grocery store chain in the United States of America. It is spread across the length and breadth of the country and is among the busiest ethnic supermarkets in US frequented by thousands each day. The still family owned chain has a long standing history of 40 years!  

At 23, armed with a diploma in electrical engineering, Mafat Patel, a farmer’s son from Bhandu in Mehsana, Gujarat, left for Chicago in 1968 and pursued a degree in mechanical engineering. He also completed his MBA.  But as work took its toll on his routine, Patel started missing Indian food. He couldn’t find any Indian grocery stores to satisfy his cravings.  

Six years later, after working in the assembly lines of different factories in Chicago as a quality controller in Jefferson Electric, Chicago, in the 1960s, when Patel was presented with an opportunity to start a business of his own, he and his brother, Tulsi, opened Patel Brothers on Devon Avenue, selling Indian ingredients like turmeric and rice flour. At the time, only four other grocery stores offered similar staples.

The thought of a food store came to the brothers because of pure Gujarati business acumen. From humble beginnings, Patel Brothers now occupies a space, at 2610 W. Devon Ave., 10 times the store's original size.

Today Mafat Patel is considered a start-up king who fortified his positions in the US food industry with huge product range diversified into specialty produce, frozen food items, ice-creams, ready-to-eat recipes and more. His stores  in the US, each from 2,500 square feet to 16,000 square feet, sell every possible item on your grocery list.  Today the chain boasts 47 stores all over USA. All of these are managed by his extended family members.  And, if you thought  SWAD just meant taste, Mafat Patel, has made a multi- million dollar brand in the US, selling vegetarian stuff through their chain of grocery stores.

It will not be wrong to call the 'Patel Brothers' stores the Mecca of Indian spices for nonresident Indians across the US.

Their supermarket mini-chains aren’t upscale or fancy, but it provides true one-stop shopping for those of South Asian descent, as well as anyone who just wants to dabble in Indian cuisine. Fresh produce bins brim with specialty produce bitter gourds that resemble spiky zucchini, Bottle Gourds, tiny green eggplants, fragrant mangoes and fresh curry leaves. Bottles of pickles, chutney and ghee, and bags of dried beans and pulses, basmati rice, whole and grounded spices, savory bhel puri snack mixes line the dry goods shelves. Don't feel up to the task of whipping up a palak paneer or chana masala from scratch? You'll find them among the selection of frozen entrees in the freezer case, along with samosas, flaky paratha breads and a rainbow of flavors of kulfi (Indian ice cream). You can also pick up Ayurvedic, Herbal products, cooking utensils, serving dishes, and bronze Ganesh, Shiva figurines.

The company imports a major chunk of its goods from India. Everyday, two containers of products travel to various stores in the chain. While most of their clientele comprises desis, they have a healthy flow of American, Mexican consumers as Indian palate appeases most taste buds. Even President Barack Obama, much before he became the president of America, had visited Patel Brothers to get a zayka India ka.

Their brand,  SWAD and Patel’s covers about every category of Indian grocery products — from lentils to spices to rice to chutnies to mango drinks.  SWAD has close to 1,000 customers across the United States and exports products to the Caribbean and Central America. 

In the ethnic market, the brothers have revamped and spruced up the stores, filling the demand for items beyond the basics of a grocery store. The franchise now has its footprints in Chicago, Detroit, Michigan, New York City, Harrisburg and practically everywhere in New Jersey.

Today Mafat’s two sons, Rakesh and Swetal have taken charge of the day to day operations of Patel Brothers. Lately, his two sons, sons-in-law, brother’s son and nephews have all developed warehouses to supply groceries to not only Indian stores but some American stores as well. Rakesh and Swetal are taking care of the Chicago warehouse. Mafat Patel’s sister’s sons Mahedra and Harshad take care of the New York warehouse; the two have also strongly built Patel Brothers in the East Coast region.

Philanthropy comes as naturally to the Patel family as running the business.  Mafat Patel, who has over 250 family members in the US today, was a welcome host to any relative who wished to set up a store under Patel Brothers banner. He has also given his time and volunteered his services to many non-profit organizations like the Indo American Centre. He is on the board of Indian American Medical Association, whose charitable arm runs free medical clinic for the needy, organizes many activities for seniors, invites experts to share their knowledge and provides lunch every day to 60-70 people- home food, Dal Bhat Shak and Roti.

Back in India, Mr. Patel is a director at Lions Hospital, Mehsana. He has donated to build waterworks and one hospital in his birth place - Bhandu.

With the help of some of his doctor friends he also established Samvedana Foundation, which has opened the first burn care center in LG Hospital, Ahemedabad. They also hold eye camps in Nagri Hospital and do annual eye exams for 400 inmates in Sabarmati jail, Ahmedabad.

During the earthquake in Gujarat, Mr. Patel, through Samvedana Foundation, collected funds and built 160 houses in Kutch, a colony known as Chicago Township today. Each house lot is 400 yards, and the residents have 24 hours light and water supply, medical center and school.

Patel spawns Raja Foods

Having established themselves as grocers, Patel brothers soon turned their attention to a new enterprise: pre-packaged ethnic foods. This stemmed out of two major trends that changed the Indian food business: By the 1990s second-generation Indians began to move out of their parents' homes and Americans developed a taste for exotic entrees like chicken tikka masala and Palak paneer.

Out of their own experiences, the brothers realized that food consumption, especially for immigrant families, is fuelled by nostalgia which is located in authentic foods - as mother made them - and hence introduced brands such as Patel’s and  SWAD that offered a slew of dry snacks, frozen Indian foods and prepared dishes under the umbrella of - Raja Foods.  

Raja Foods originated as the procurement division for their large chain of Indian grocery stores but the effectiveness of Raja’s distribution network for imported Indian food products enabled them to use that network to sell their own brands.

Over the years Raja Foods became popular especially with consumers who work long hours and who do not have time to cook labor intensive Indian meals. It has become one of the three largest Indian food distribution companies in the country with business surpassing the $140 million mark and growing 25% annually, according to its owners. Its core customers are the over 3 million Indians, Pakistanis and Bangladeshis in the United States. But since 1996, it's been gaining traction in non-specialty supermarkets like Jewel and Whole Foods.

Their website provides in-depth understanding of South  Asian culinary culture, development of these culinary traditions and the role that they have played in the traditional dishes that you place on your family table.

 Interview with Hiran M. Patel, Director, Raja Foods
Patel Brothers has more than 50 stores across the US. How many more can we expect?
Hiran Patel: Our target is 15 more stores by 2020.

How do you decide which city/locality is right for opening a store?
Hiran Patel: We go by our current consumer feedback right at the retail level. They often tell us, “why don’t you open a store in this area or that.” We then go to that area, check the demographics and decide whether it is feasible or not.

Now we notice more and more ready to heat and eat foods. Is it a conscious decision? 
Hiran Patel: Indian families have become more like American families in the sense that both husband and wife are working, raise kids and have several other duties. Therefore, they too are looking for quick and easy way to prepare authentic Indian meals which their taste buds are accustomed to. Our goal is not only to satisfy their taste buds but also to ensure that they get quick and easy to prepare authentic Indian meals and we are continuously in the process to launch new products to that effect.

Patel Brothers seems to be a monopoly when it comes to Indian food business in the US but do you have any rivals?
Hiran Patel: We are not a monopoly in any sense, we face plenty of competition in all markets.  

How many generations of family members are there in the business?
Hiran Patel: Currently we are in our third generation contributing to the success of the business.

Who is Raja Foods named after?
Hiran Patel:  Raja foods is the brainchild of Mr. Rakesh Patel. While in college in his business class,  Rakesh drafted a business plan on how he wanted to create a distribution company for Patel Brothers. His professor reviewed it and encouraged him to peruse it. Rakesh’s childhood nickname was Raja and that’s how the family named the company after its founder as Raja foods.

What is the primary business of Raja foods?
Hiran Patel: Raja foods is into sourcing and supplying food products.

Besides Patel Brothers, where else are Raja products distributed?  
Hiran Patel:  We  distribute to all major South Asian supermarkets and even some of the other local markets.

We see on TV your  SWAD paneer ad (comparing white  SWAD paneer to a rival brand).  And we have already converted.  How was that strategy worked out?
Hiran Patel: Our strategy is quite simple, we are retailers at heart and our main source of information is listening to our consumers. For example, our customers have told us in the past that they prefer white-as-snow paneer and not pale colored and therefore we found a manufacturer that could make paneer to this specification.

How is Raja planning to cash in on the frozen foods exploding market in America?
Hiran Patel: Via advertising and developing new products that consumers want. We are currently in R & D for another 50 new frozen varieties including frozen vada pav, sabudana khichdi, handvo and frozen sweets.

Which other spinoff businesses you can think of? Do you have your own truck trailers for transport, ships?
Hiran Patel: Currently we are not focusing on any other businesses besides Patel Brothers grocery stores and Raja foods. And yes, we do own our own fleet of trucks for deliveries and distribution.

What percent of your sourced ingredients/produce is from India?
Hiran Patel: Except for mangoes none of the fresh produces is from India. Even mangos are seasonal import (two months). In terms of other dry and processed food like spices, flour, rice, frozen meals, snacks, pickles and relishes, all are from India.

Does Raja source/supply all needs of Patel Bros?
Hiran Patel: On an average Raja supplies 60 percent of Patel Brothers’ needs.

How many extended Patel family members are now employed by Patel/Raja? 
Hiran Patel: In all 80 family members are involved in the business at all levels.

Indian ethnic food brands are becoming widely popular even among Americans. Can you think of any other comparable ethnic food company success?
 Hiran Patel: There are many success stories in the overall food industry. To name a few there is Ziyad Brothers, Goya.

Update: 10 Jan, 2015