The Coronavirus pandemic is threatening neighborhoods as we know it. It has become an existential threat to the corner florist and the down-the-road beauty salon. In California, family run stores that primarily serve the Indian American community are not immune to the situation and face an uphill battle to return to pre-Covid days.
For the record, each business India-West spoke to was a thriving enterprise before Covid-19 struck, serving a community with funds and a willingness to spend. Now, as they cautiously begin to reopen, they are encountering changed consumer behavior. Among other things, there is high unemployment causing a drop in restaurant clientele; cancellation of in-person public events affecting the jewelry and fashion industry; and a general sense of fear that permeates and inhibits shoppers from stepping in to browse merchandise.
Whether in Southern or Northern California, located in proximity to the Indian American community or not, the mood of businesses swings between urgency tinged with desperation and a cheery optimism that this too shall pass.
Dolly Kamnani of Poshaak, a clothing boutique, wants the public to know they are open as are the rest of the stores in ‘Little India’ on Pioneer Blvd. in Artesia. “Please support us,” she told India-West, adding, “Right now I just come, sit here and go away. There are no walk-ins.”
Her views are echoed by Balkar Tamber, who runs three restaurants in Northern California, including the well regarded Sakoon in Mountain View. “We want people to come back, we are following every rule to keep safe in the kitchen,” he told India-West.
Restaurateurs, like Tamber, have had common experiences since March. The father-son duo of Senjil and Saumil Patel who run Rasraj on Pioneer Blvd., and Gurpal Sood, who operates Paratha Grill, all bemoan the huge loss of inventory when the orders came in March to shut down. They returned to throw out dairy, meat and vegetables and desserts.
What has hit them the hardest is the evaporation of catering. Senjil Patel said he is stuck with two canceled conventions including the spiritual leader Morari Bapu’s lecture series, which was expected to draw 3,000 people for nine days in Ontario. Patel and Tamber have done their best to adapt to the circumstances. Tamber is working with professional delivery services and Patel has encouraged families in cities in Corona, Yorba Linda and others to place their orders together so the food can be delivered at one home for others to come and pick up.
“We have to be creative,” he told India-West. “I am the last restaurant on Pioneer that is opening up. My children didn’t want me to be out, but you can’t afford to shut your doors for long, customers will forget you,” noted Sood.
The family owned Bhindi Jewelers, with presence in Northern and Southern California, briefly closed their flagship store in Artesia due to the protests following the killing of George Floyd in Minnesota. Undeterred by these setbacks, Vinod Bhindi is downright optimistic of things going forward.
“Artesia is the hub for Indian Americans in Southern California and the shopping experience here is pleasant,” Bhindi told India-West. “The merchants have the latest designs, the quality is good, and people have been waiting to shop for the last many months.”
Bhindi avers that people have been waiting to shop and he is not off the mark. The media has been reporting on the spurt in retail shopping by people locked in for months. “We have lost two major events, Akshaya Tritiya and Mother’s Day,” acknowledged Bhindi. “But we have other things coming up and people will spend,” he reiterated, “including regular clients who want to make all those delayed purchases. It looks promising. Things just have to settle down a bit.”
For all businesses, the Damocles Sword is rent. “We will have to start paying. Income we didn’t get, fine. But how do we pay rent? SBA loan is there but it is a loan,” Kamnani of Poshaak told India-West. Rasraj’s Patel noted: “Our landlord has deferred payment but we will have to pay even though there is zero activity.” Paratha Grill’s Sood was blunt: “I have not paid all these months, I don’t have funds.”
Krutika Pranav of Highglow Jewelers on Pioneer Blvd. summed it up: “Fixed costs are always there, insurance and rent among them. Businesses are dipping into their reserves right now.”
There are other challenges, too. With things opening up, some staff members who went on unemployment are reluctant to return to part-time wages. “I am having a hard time bringing them back,” said Tamber, “but I can’t bring all of them back; there is no catering, no dining-in, the customers are not there.”
A lot hinges on customers going back to pre-Covid purchasing patterns. “It’s going to take time,” Pranav explained. “Unsure about jobs, people are prioritizing expenses and in businesses like ours it is affected by their hesitance to go out.”
Luxury spending might have taken a knock or two without social gatherings, but Pranav told India-West that even when they were closed, there were sales over video. “Some were personal buys and others for gifting. We would deliver at the curb to customers we knew. But really, how many can you serve remotely? It is such a personal choice.”
Having opened, Pranav said it hurt her to shutter down again during the protests that followed Floyd’s death. The staff had to be told why, and she took it personally. Having previously made her home in Zambia and falling in love with the place and its people, Pranav spoke with tenderness and compassion about her experience there and the situation here today. “I cried,” she said of Floyd’s killing, “it was so graphic, it was shattering.”
Over at Artesia’s Frontier Heritage, Neetu Asija told India-West, “As people get more comfortable with wearing masks and doing the other things to remain safe, it should get better.”
Customers coming in is part of the experience of buying, believes the boutique owner. “People don’t come to us to buy clothes to wear at home. They want to check it out, see how it flows on them and get advice from us. Genuine buyers are coming because weddings are happening in the backyard and over Zoom, thank god,” she said.
In Sunnyvale, Siddharth Gill at PNG Jewelers commented, “As business people we simply have to be optimistic, we have so much invested in this.”
But things have changed. “I have friends who have not gone out because they are scared. So we can’t be pushy. Earlier we would be aggressive in our marketing. Now we are low key and have only called our regular customers to tell them we are open. They are doing the purchasing over Facetime and video calls,” he told India-West.
Having missed out on the Akshaya Trittiya and Gudi Padva festivals, Gill said that prognostications of a Coronavirus second wave, which might happen around Diwali, is a concern. The recent freeze on H-1B visas by the Trump administration has added to purse strings being tightened, he noted.
Jeweler, restaurateur or boutique owner, even though a bit beaten by the setback caused by extraneous circumstances and the dazzling suddenness of it, echoed each other with sentiments of hope on things rebounding. Almost all of them also made a plea to the Indian American community to support them by shopping and patronizing their services.