A Taste of Home: A look at Decatur’s thriving and enduring homegrown South Asian businessesAtaul Mohsin has been the tandoor chef at Zyka: The Taste Indian Restaurant for 10 years. Photo by Dean Hesse.
About this series: This is Part 1 of our four-part “A Taste of Home” series. South Asian writer Anila Yoganathan and photographer Dean Hesse shine a new light on some of Decatur’s popular South Asian businesses. The Decatur area holds history of being a space for these businesses. As new development comes to the area and more people are discovering these businesses, Anila wanted to showcase the important role these businesses play for South Asians in Georgia but also throughout the South.
By Anila Yoganathan, contributor
Decatur, GA — It’s Sunday night during the week of Diwali and the plazas on Dekalb Industrial Way and Church Street are packed with people.
Colorful string and LED lights as well as bright white floodlights adorn the buildings and windows of businesses as families bustle in and out of the South Asian stores and restaurants.
This is Decatur, a small piece of the South Asian subcontinent dropped in the middle of metro Atlanta, with some businesses serving South Asian communities across the U.S. South since at least the 1980s.
When Jay Varma first moved to Georgia in 1995 for college, there were very few Indians in the state. Atlanta was not known as an Indian hub, like Chicago, New Jersey or Houston. The concept of an Indian neighborhood in metro Atlanta was but a dream at that point in time.
“It was definitely a culture shock,” Varma said. “When you first come here, obviously you miss home, and you miss your friends and your parents and your food.”
At the time there wasn’t the same access to resources such as spices, vegetables, food and restaurants for South Asians as there is in Georgia today.
There were a couple of grocery stores including Cherians International Groceries and Patel Brothers, a Chicago based South Asian grocery store company, that had popped up in the metro Atlanta area back in the 1980s to 2000s. There was a dry foods store called Taj Mahal Imports and an Indian restaurant called Chat Patti in Druid Hills, and a small store called India Bazaar off of Lavista Road in Tucker.
Back then, there wasn’t a major central location where these businesses congregated, until owners started opening up stores in Decatur.
“Mid-96 when the Olympics came to Atlanta, that’s when the Indian population just boomed,” Varma said. “There were a lot of Indians coming in. They start doing businesses, opening up their motels and convenience stores.”
For at least 30 years, the Decatur area has been a staple location for South Asians and includes grocery stores, restaurants, jewelry stores, sweet shops and clothing stores specific to the South Asian community along Church Street, Dekalb Industrial Way and Scott Boulevard in a series of plazas and strip malls.
“I feel like this area grew organically, and it wasn’t like a forced growth,” said Tommy Cherian, who helps run his family’s business, Cherians International Groceries. “What you find here is people that have been here for a long period of time, and then businesses that are now up and coming that are here, they’re here because there’s an ample amount of draw.”
As the businesses have grown in the area, so has the city of Decatur as a whole. Apartment communities have surrounded them, sprouting up left and right.
In the last 10 years, about five apartment and residential complexes, with units ranging from 250 to over 400, have been built within a mile of Patel and Grace Plazas, according to the Dekalb Property Assessor’s site. Even North Dekalb Mall is set to be redeveloped into townhomes, apartments, stores, restaurants and a hotel.
But all of this development is not necessarily a bad thing.
“They’re trying to upscale the entire area, and so you can see a lot more businesses coming in trying to cash in on the opportunity. Property value here has tripled over the years from what it was, so it’s a good situation to be in,” Cherian said.
With the changes, also comes new customers, including more Americans.
Varma said the last time he went to one of his favorite restaurants in the area, Zyka, he saw a group of about 10 American students enjoying a meal, something he said he would not have seen 30 years ago.
“There’s two police officers who drink chai [from here] in the morning all the time,” Saleem Sattani, owner of Gokul Sweets, said. “Every day they come and get their chai.”
Meanwhile, the South Asian population has moved to the North metro Atlanta area and some of the businesses that started in Decatur have second or third locations to meet the growing population, including Patel Brothers, Cherians, Zyka and Gokul Sweets.
But the roots for multiple of the community’s businesses started in Decatur.
“To me, it’s probably very important just because it kind of has history and legacy,” Gagan Chahal, a realtor who grew up in Georgia, said. “It’s kind of a reminder of where we come from in the city, and so I think it kind of shows us our humble beginnings.”
Decatur as a portal to home
Everyday immigrant life subsists off of access to resources from home and adapting when those resources are limited. A community’s ability to thrive and celebrate special occasions or just even have the food they grew up with is reliant upon access in America. And Decatur businesses have provided access in a way that doesn’t always exist for South Asians across the country.
Families from across Georgia, across the South in general, will make trips to this area to get access to goods they might not have at home.
“They would get groceries, they would eat a bunch of Indian food, buy their meats and vegetables for the month and then pack it up in ice boxes and take it back to their towns,” Varma said, recalling the family friends who would make trips from Alabama.
Saleem Sattani, owner of Gokul Sweets and his daughter-in-law Rizwana, said he’s had customers come from all over the South, Canada, California, Connecticut and New Jersey and more to buy sweets, snacks and eat food.
It’s not about one store drawing all of these customers, either. It’s all of them together.
Families will drive over and do their grocery shopping, being able to pick out produce at competitive prices from at least two large stores, Cherians and Patel Brothers, that they might have limited access to at their neighborhood Kroger and Publix. The variety in the stores alone doesn’t only cater to one group of South Asians, because cultures, cuisines and lifestyles can differ throughout the subcontinent.
“It’s not one part of India,” Cherian said. “There’s so many different cultures. There’s so many different languages. There’s so many different religions and so all of those you have to cater to, or you won’t be able to sustain.”
Families can buy large quantities of lentils, rice and whole wheat flour from a number of brands. There’s also rows of large packets of spices that you would only see in tiny glass bottles with a hefty price ticket at an American grocery store.
“If I go into the kind of ready-made section you’re not gonna find only one channa (garbanzo bean) mix. You’re going to find every channa mix they make in India,” Roshni Patel, who grew up in Georgia, said about shopping at Patel Brothers. Roshni Patel is not related to the Patel family that owns the plaza.
After stocking up on groceries, families can have lunch at one of the many South Asian restaurants that serve a variety of cuisines from across the subcontinent including the café in Cherians, Zyka, Honest, Madras Mantra and Chat Patti. They can buy sweets and savory snacks to bring home, as well as buy in bulk for special occasions from stores like Gokul or Royal Sweets.
There’s jewelry stores like Malani and Bhindi Jewelers that will carry specific designs and stones that are sacred to South Asians. There are stores like Mirage Sarees and Texas Sari Sapne with the latest fashions for the next big wedding or holiday.
Pruthvi Soni, a Georgia resident since 2012, said, “Every time we go there, it feels like it’s just a chunk of India here.”
Building the backbone of a community
As more apartments move and new businesses come along, it’s important to know there is stability among the South Asian businesses in the area, because they own the land.
Both the Patel Brothers family and the Cherian family own their respective plazas in Decatur. The former along Church Street and the latter along Dekalb Industrial Way. Patel Plaza houses more than 30 businesses and the Cherian family’s Grace plaza houses about 14 different stores, a church and DeKalb County government buildings.
“So that’s a new concept is now we’re doing little mini Indian (South Asian) malls,” said Rakesh Patel who helps run the family business, Patel Brothers. “Three, four restaurants, two jewelry stores…the basic stuff that every Indian (South Asian) needs every week.”
For Noor Fazal, owner of the restaurant Zyka, owning his land means he doesn’t have to worry about a lease like he did at a restaurant he tried to open in Dallas, Texas. His Decatur location is between Scott Boulevard and Church Street, right across from Patel Plaza.
He decided to open a restaurant in Decatur in 1997 specifically because he saw that there was already a draw for customers here, including Cherians and a Muslim community center. With more businesses moving in every year, Fazal has watched more restaurants specializing in a variety of Indian cuisines become his neighbors. But he’s not worried about competition.
“Like back home [in India, people] go to one street…the area is dedicated for jewelry, clothing, so people go in that area only,” Fazal said.
His take is similar to Sattani’s. At the end of the day, new restaurants and stores in the area only bring more customers who discover what else the area has to offer.
Today, each of these businesses also have second or third locations across the metro to meet the growing South Asian population. Zyka has a second restaurant in Alpharetta, Gokul Sweets in Duluth and Cherians is also located in Duluth and Cumming. Patel Brothers is based out of Chicago, but one of their first locations in Georgia was Decatur. They now have stores in Kennesaw and Suwanee.
Despite the population changes and changes in location of the South Asian community in the metro, Decatur still draws customers from all over. With Georgia Tech, Emory and Georgia State University so close, students who are children of immigrants or international students will come to the area for their groceries and food, Cherian said, noting that University of Georgia students also come during the weekend.
“Whenever there’s like a gurdwara (temple) function, and they need to get groceries, my mom or one person from the gurdwara will make a trip up to Atlanta [from Augusta] to get the groceries for the church to make sure they have it,” Gagan Chahal said, adding that the temple would buy the produce in bulk to serve the entire community attending the function.
The area holds a special place for the South Asian community, especially for those who have seen it grow and change over time.
“I think if you’ve been there for a long period of time, I think you’d understand what this [area] meant to you,” Cherian said. “If you’re new, it’s just another part of town. But we’re lucky enough to have lived through it. So most of this area has a lot of memories for me. So I would hate to see it go away.”
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