SPICING UP AMERICA
THE PATEL BROTHERS’ SUCCESS STORY
From one store in Chicago in 1974 to a most well-known chain of 55 grocery stores across America, Patel Brothers has come a long way, as has its founder, Mafat Patel. Little did he know that his little venture would become the roaring success it has today, especially amidst the Indian immigrant community. Feelings talks to the man behind the business that is built up and bound together by family ties.
One’s own food is the closest connect that can be, with one’s own roots. Indians are no different, and food tempered with Indian spices is what they long for, when settled in a foreign land. Mr. Mafat Patel was one such Indian who moved to America in the early 70’s for an MBA. He had studied to be an engineer but destiny had other plans for him. Craving for home food during his time there, he saw other Indians around him facing the same plight. Indian spices and ingredients were hard to come by in America and when available were highly priced. This prompted the young Mr. Mafat Patel to start the maiden Patel Brothers store in 1974. Today they are a chain of as many as 55 stores across America.
Every item an Indian kitchen needs can be found on their shelves and it is the go to grocery store for any Indian who is missing her homeland. This extraordinary feat is a result of the passion and hard work of Mr. Mafat Patel and his family. It has been a long journey for the boy from Bhandu village in Mehsana who came to America with a dream to make it big, all those years ago. He still visits India every winter to meet friends and relatives and to do some social work, before going back rejuvenated. After all, who would know the value of staying connected with his country better than him?
Mr. Mafat Patel and his colleague, Director of Patel Brothers, Varshaben, met Atulbhai Shah, the Managing Editor, Feelings. Here are some excerpts from the conversation:
Tell us about your background and how you made it to America?
I was born on 17th January, 1945 in Bhandu village of Mehsana. We were five siblings; two brothers and three sisters. My schooling was in Mehsana and I completed my Diploma in Mechanical Engineering in Patan. But, my dream to go to America was realized in 1968 when I secured a student visa to study there. I completed my MBA from Indiana University.
How did the idea of starting a grocery store come about?
After completing my MBA, I joined Jefferson Electrical Co. in Chicago as a Quality Control Engineer. During this period, I observed that Indians staying there, particularly Gujaratis really miss home food. So I thought of starting a small grocery store. To start that however, I needed people. So I requested my Bhai and Bhabhi to come to America. We opened the first store in 1974 in Chicago, which stayed open from 9 am to 9 pm. This store was looked after by my bhai, Tulsibhai and bhabhi, Arunaben. There is a tremendous contribution of these two in the success of Patel Brothers. This is how the journey started. The prices of Indian products were kept very high in those days, since they were available at only very few places. So, we thought of starting such stores in other places too. For this again I needed people. So, I brought my brother, nephew and almost all family members to America. After Chicago, we started stores in Houston, Atlanta, New York, Detroit, among other big cities.
What position do the Patel Brothers enjoy in America today?
Patel Brothers is today the biggest Indian wholesaler among Indian provision/grocery stores. The famous brand is now a chain of 55 stores in all, which itself is a record. We have also introduced various packaged foods under the brand name ‘SWAD’.
How you manage such a big business, spread over so many states?
I have engaged all my family members in this business. My two sons, Rakesh and Svetal look after day to day operations of the chain along with their bit of social service. Besides this, my nephew, son-in-law and sons have established warehouses, where the material is stored. Rakesh and Svetal look after the Chicago warehouse, while my nephews Mahendra and Harshad and son-in-law, Paresh look after New York warehouse.
Your entire family is settled here and engaged in this single business, what is the family dynamics like?
Everybody’s contribution is important in Patel Brothers’ success as every member of the family holds a key role. As a united family, we believe in caring for one another’s happiness and peace. Apart from my sons, both my daughters Meena and Rita also contribute their bit along with my three sisters who are settled in New York and Detroit. Two other nephews Jayesh and Bharat manage the stores in Ohio, Michigan, Indianapolis and Texas very well. In short, while running the business successfully, we have simultaneously been able to maintain love and affection amongst the family members, which is a most pleasing and satisfying aspect.
With great power comes great responsibility
- Besides grocery, Mr. Mafat Patel has ventured into several other businesses too. He owns a travel agency – Air Tours in Chicago, which is managed by Varshaben. He also runs a cruise business. With his liberal and benevolent nature, he has been able to keep together a family of more than 300 members, all settled in America. Mr. Mafat Patel makes it a point to pray for each and every member of the family. He has earned the respect of Pakistanis and local Americans, not only for his business acumen, but also for his ethical business policies and the love and affection he shows towards people. Mr. Mafat Patel is also associated with several other organizations such as the Indo-American Centre of which he is the Hon. Director and the Indian American Medical Association – Charitable Foundation. The latter extends financial help to people who cannot afford costly medical treatment here. They also organize many activities and events for senior citizens which include about 60–70 Gujarati lunches annually, comprising of Dal-Bhat-Shak-Rotli.
- ‘I feel happy that I am able to do something for the society’, says Mr. Mafat Patel when asked about the social service activities that keep him busy.
- Though Mr. Mafat Patel and family are considered to be millionaires, he is down to earth and has a heart full of compassion. He is Director on board of Lion Hospital in Mehsana. A man with a social conscience, he funded the construction of a hospital and overhead water tank for the people of Bhandu. In 2004, he lost his wife Chanchalben in whose memory he has established the Patel Foundation. He also donated to Rs. 2 crores for a Nursing College in Gandhinagar, apart from donating some ultra-modern medical equipment called ‘Simulation’ which helps in taking care of newborn babies. “This is the only such machine available here in all of Gujarat,” he claims. Mr. Mafat Patel has established a burn care centre in Ahmedabad’s L G Hospital under the aegis of the Samvedana Foundation, a trust founded by him. Here, state of the art technology is available to save lives of critical patients. He also organizes eye care camps regularly. In one such camp organized at Sabarmati Jail, more than 4000 prisoners benefitted from eyes checkups. During the 2001 earthquake in Gujarat, Mr. Mafat Patel built 160 houses in Kutchh, an area which is well known as the Chicago Township!