In an 800-square-foot room tucked away on Chicago’s Devon Avenue, a 20-something Gujarati immigrant was on the verge of creating an empire. It was 1974, and Mafat Patel had just bought the only Indian grocery store for miles — a cramped reservoir of dals, spices and rice packaged in cloth bags stacked to the ceiling.
On a corridor of Chicago later nicknamed “Little India,” home-cooked food was surprisingly hard to come by. The street teemed with evidence of the growing number of South Asian immigrants there: sari shops, bookstores and temples quickly proliferated. But groceries were all but impossible to find.
If families had the ingredients they needed, they probably brought them from back home, packed tightly into check-in suitcases or mailed in bulk by family members on the subcontinent.
Patel, who had immigrated from a farming village in western India, found that even within a densely populated brown neighborhood like Devon’s, there was a profound sense of loneliness, he said in a 2018 interview. The missing piece was a hot Indian meal at the end of the day.
So after talking his brother Tulsi Patel and sister-in-law Aruna into joining him in Chicago, he turned his tiny storefront into the nation’s first Patel Brothers. And Devon Avenue exploded in tandem.
“He was able to read the market,” said Happie Dutt, a historian and Chicago local who has frequented Devon Avenue since she moved to the city in 1976. “‘If I feel like this, there are many people who must feel like this.’”
Over the next three decades, that 800-square-foot space would grow into the largest South Asian grocery chain in the U.S., with 53 stores across the country.
Weekly trips to Patel Brothers are now near-synonymous with the South Asian American experience. It’s where aunties stock up on everything from okra to hair oil to masala-flavored chips while their kids sneak Maggi noodles into the bottom of the cart.
It’s a place where recent immigrants say they pass the time to feel the familiarity of fresh food, a cup of chai, and the language that they’re used to.
“They’ll serve you a hot chapati and you’re standing there thinking, ‘This is like someone serving me at home,’” Dutt said. The first South Asian immigrants to come to the U.S. after the 1965 Immigration and Naturalization Act were all up against similar obstacles as Mafat Patel, now 77. Many were alone — student visas were common, and along with that often came isolation. Dutt was one of those students, arriving to study at the University of Florida when she was 19 in 1972.
“One of the things everyone misses when they are away from home at such a young age is the cooking,” she said. And though there might have been other South Asian students on campus, there was no guarantee they spoke the same language or understood each others’ cultures.
Still, tiny enterprises began popping up to feed this growing population.
“There were students who had opened little shops to sell groceries,” she said. “Their parents would ship some spices and some dals and lentils and they would open up their living room. They’d have them stacked, and people who desperately wanted that turmeric or dal would buy it off the students.”
This was mirrored on Devon Avenue, which in the 1970s was becoming Chicago’s newest ethnic neighborhood.
The street has always been a cultural potpourri, historians said, and immigrant groups have cycled through since Chicago’s West Ridge went from empty garlic fields to a dense urban center. Now home to Russians, Jews, Iraqis, Pakistanis, Indians and Bengalis, Devon’s population became increasingly brown in the 60s and 70s.
“If you go to Devon, you can actually see what’s happening on our subcontinent,” said Shiwali Varshney Tenner, 47, who has lived in Chicago for almost 20 years years. “When Rohingya Muslims were being expelled, you could see quite a few of them there.”
Once home to predominantly Indian immigrants and businesses, the eastern portion of Devon was given the honorary name “Gandhi Marg.” The western portion, home to more Muslim institutions, was called “Muhammad Ali Jinnah Way,” a reference to the founder of Pakistan.
Distinct epicenters for each culture give way to a melange of people, businesses and cuisines. Residents say the unique thing about Patel Brothers was its ability to serve them all.
“Gurjuratis shopped at Gujarati stores, people from the South shopped at separate stores,” Dutt said about the time before Patel Brothers. “[Mafat] brought a broad base of items that would meet the needs of all South Asians.”
In the same aisles that have ingredients for chole masala, aloo gobi and chicken nihari, there are also traditional South Indian rasams, sambars and uttapam.
Representatives from Patel Brothers did not respond to a request for comment.
When Varshney Tenner first arrived in Chicago, she was starting her life over. As an Indian immigrant and former New Yorker, she lacked any ties to the city, but she immediately gravitated to Devon.
“I lived downtown, but of course I was missing Indian food and I needed my staples, the rice and the spices,” she said.
So she went to Patel Brothers. At the time it was a small, bare-bones shop, but she was able to capture a bit of home there regardless. “I found ganna juice there,” she said. “I almost cried.”
Varshney Tenner has regularly returned to Devon for clothes and food. In her searches for classical Indian dance wear, she made friends with many of the business owners in Little India. Years passed in Chicago, and her community slowly expanded.
“Just the ability to speak in Hindi, it feels good,” she said. “I got into phases of trying to find the best biryani. So I would get my friends together and we tried biryani at every single place. We did the same with anda parathas.”
While gentrification slowly claims South Asian mainstays in big cities, such as “Curry Row” in New York’s East Village, Devon Avenue’s “Little India” remains. It’s changed, though, community members say. Many businesses continue to thrive, but some cater more to tourists, and others have followed the immigrant families that have largely left.
“People keep saying that it’s not as good as it used to be,” Varshney Tenner said. “And I see the quality is hit or miss now for food. Some of the really good restaurants…they’re in the suburbs.”
The Patel Brothers on Devon Avenue is no longer a tiny room where customers have to shuffle sideways, weaving between shelves of products to grab a bag of masoor. Its bright green and white storefront mirrors those of its branches in places like Flushing, New York and Chandler, Arizona and Suwanee, Georgia, far corners of the country where a new diaspora generation will come of age, wandering the sweets section or snacking on a bag of Kurkure as their parents push them in the carts.
“It’s become an institution,” Dutt said.