How Chicago’s ‘Little India’ gave birth to Battle Brothers’ first grocery store

In an 800-square-foot room on Chicago’s Devon Street, a 20-year-old Gujarati immigrant was about to create an empire. It was 1974, and Mavat Patel had just bought India’s only grocery store for miles – a narrow tank of dal, spices and rice packed in beanbags stacked to the ceiling.

In a lane in Chicago later called “Little India”, home-cooked food was very hard to come by. The street was littered with evidence of the growing number of South Asian immigrants there: sari shops, bookshops and temples swarmed quickly. But it was impossible to find groceries.

If families had the ingredients they needed, they likely brought them from home, tightly packed in check-in bags or mailed in bulk by family members in the Indian subcontinent.

Patel, who migrated from a farming village in western India, found that even within a densely built brown neighborhood like Devon, there was a deep sense of loneliness, He said in an interview in 2018.. The missing piece was a hot Indian meal at the end of the day.

So after talking to his brother Tulsi Patel and his sister-in-law Aruna to join him in Chicago, he turned his small storefront into the country’s first Battle Brothers. Devon Street exploded side by side.

“He was able to read the market,” said Happy Dutt, a Chicago historian and native who has frequented Devon Avenue since she moved to the city in 1976. “If you feel that way, there are a lot of people who should feel that way.”

Over the next three decades, that 800-square-foot space will grow to become the largest South Asian grocery chain in the United States, with 53 stores across the country.

Weekly trips to Patel Brothers are now almost synonymous with the South American experience. It’s where aunts stock everything from okra to hair oil to masala-flavored chips while their kids sneak Maggi noodles down the wagon.

It is a place that recent immigrants say they spend time in to feel the familiarity of fresh food, a cup of tea, and the language they are accustomed to.

The owner's son stocks shelves at a Patel Brothers store at 2542 West Devon Avenue in Chicago, November 1984.
The owner’s son stockpiled shelves at the Patel Brothers store in Chicago in November 1984.Mukul Roy/Chicago Museum of History

They’ll serve you a hot plate of chapati and you’re standing there thinking, ‘That’s like someone serving me at home,’ Dutt said. The first immigrants from South Asia to the United States after the Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965 faced similar hurdles as Maft Patel, now 77. It was Many on their own – Student visas were common, and there was often solitude.Dutt was one such student, arriving to study at the University of Florida when she was 19 in 1972.

“One of the things that everyone misses when they are away from home at such a young age is cooking,” she said. And although there may have been other South Asian students on campus, there was no guarantee that they spoke the same language or understood each other’s cultures.

However, small businesses are starting to emerge to feed this growing population.

“There were students who opened small grocery stores,” she said. Their parents would ship some spices, some dals and lentils, and open up their living room. They had it piled up, and people desperately wanting that turmeric or dal would buy it from the students.”

This was reflected in Devon Street, which in the 1970s became Chicago’s newest ethno-neighbourhood.

Historians have said the street has always been culturally ornate, and groups of immigrants have rotated since Chicago’s West Ridge moved 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 1960s and 1970s.

“If you go to Devon, you can really see what’s happening on our subcontinent,” said Shewali Varshney Tener, 47, who has lived in Chicago for nearly 20 years. “When the Rohingya Muslims were expelled, you could see very few of them there.”

The eastern part of Devon was once home to immigrants and predominantly Indian businesses, and has received the honorary name “Gandhi Marge”. The western part, home to more Islamic institutions, was called “Muhammad Ali Jinnah Road”, in reference to the founder of Pakistan.

The distinctive foci of each culture give way to a mixture of people, companies and cuisines. Residents say the unique thing about Patel Brothers is its ability to serve them all.

“Gurjuratis were shopping in Gujarati stores, and people from the south were shopping in separate stores,” Dutt said of the time before the Battle Brothers. “[Mafat] It brought a broad base of items that would meet the needs of all South Asians.”

In the same aisles with ingredients chole masala, aloo gobi and chicken nihari, there are also traditional South Indian raspberries, sambars and uttapam.

Representatives for Battle Brothers did not respond to a request for comment.

When Freshney Tinner 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 was immediately drawn to Devon.

“I used to live downtown, but of course I was missing Indian food and needed my staples, rice and spices,” she said.

So I went to Battle Brothers. At the time it was a little shop exposed, but she was able to grab a little bit of home there regardless. She said, “I found Jannah juice there.” “I almost cried.”

Freshney Tinner regularly returns to Devon to buy clothes and food. In her search for Indian Classical Dance Wear, she has made friends with several business owners in the Little India region. The years passed in Chicago, and her community slowly expanded.

“Just being able to speak Hindi, it feels good,” she said. “I went through stages of trying to find the best biryani. So I was going to get my friends together and we tried biryani everywhere. We did the same with Anda Paratha.”

People eat at the Food and Flavor on Devon Avenue in Chicago, December 1984.
Diners at Food and Flavor on Devon Avenue in Chicago in December 1984.Mukul Roy/Chicago Museum of History

While slowly improving claims it is a South Asian mainstay in major cities, such as ‘Curry Row’ in New York’s East Village, ‘Little India’ on Devon Avenue remains. But members of the community say that has changed. Many businesses continue to thrive, but some cater to more tourists, and others have largely followed immigrant families who have left.

“People keep saying it’s not as good as it used to be,” said Varshney Tenner. “And I see that the quality of the food has now been affected or lost. Some really good restaurants… are in the suburbs.”

The Patel Brothers on Devon Avenue is no longer a small room where customers have to move sideways, weaving between shelves of produce to grab a sack of piping. The bright green and white storefront mirrors those of its branches in places like Flushing, New York, Chandler, Arizona, and Swane, Georgia, remote corners of the country where a new generation of expats will come of age, strolling into the sweets section or snacking. The Kurkure bag where their parents push them in wagons.

“It became an institution,” Dutt said.

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