A Taste of Home: South Asian grocery store chain supports community for almost 40 yearsOwner George Cherian stands in front of a mural in the entrance of Cherians International Groceries at 751 DeKalb Industrial Way in greater Decatur. Photo by Dean Hesse.
About this series: This is Part 3 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. To read Part 1, click here. To read Part 2, click here.
By Anila Yoganathan, contributor
Decatur, GA — For the last 40 years, Tommy Cherian has watched his family’s grocery store grow from being a hole-in-the-wall shop in Roswell to one of the largest Indian grocery store chains based in metro Atlanta, with the oldest store located in Decatur.
“When they (Cherian’s family) came to Atlanta…there was only like…five, six [Indian] families at the most. And my dad, he always wanted to have some sort of a business,” Cherian said.
South Asian grocery stores are cultural hubs for South Asian immigrants and provide an essential service to the community. Over the last few decades, store locations have popped up across the United States, some large like Cherians or Patel Brothers are today and some much smaller, like this Decatur-based store once was. The stores in Decatur especially attract South Asians from all over Georgia and even neighboring states such as Tennessee, Alabama and Florida.
George and John Cherian, Tommy’s father and great uncle, opened the Decatur location for the Cherians International Groceries back in 1983 when the area was vastly different.
The first location was in the complex that is now known as Patel Plaza. Cherian said there used to be a Blockbuster, a Chinese restaurant and an Indian café and then their store. It was a far cry from the South Asian business center the area is known for today.
“My dad did a little bit of clothing, a little bit of handicrafts, a little bit of electronics and then a little bit of groceries,” Cherian said. “He was just trying to figure out what he was good at. And…over time we concentrated more on groceries.”
The family was able to grow their grocery business with the help of Tommy’s uncle, Mathew Cherian partnering with George and John. The larger the store, the larger the variety, but for South Asian communities in America to even have access to a small store can be a blessing.
South Asian grocery stores provide access to a variety of fresh produce that might not typically be found in an American grocery store: snacks and frozen foods by South Asian companies, spices and ingredients at competitive prices and even beauty products such as soaps and hair products. Each item not only provides a connection to home, but also a connection to the culture, which can be especially important for immigrants who are raising children in America.
“We would get basmati rice, and we’d get the vegetables that you can’t really find in an American grocery store…Like all of the vegetables that I would know in Gujurati (an Indian language) is what I could find at Patel Brothers,” Roshni Patel, a former Georgia resident said.
Those vegetables include:
— Kantola- spicy gourd
— Guar- clustered beans
— Pathra- colocasia leaves
— Parwal- pointed gourd
— Hardar roots- turmeric roots
— Turia- chinese okra
— Rataru- purple yam/ube
— Malanga- coco root
— Suran- elephant foot yam
— Dhudi- bottle gourd
For a store like Cherians that started as a small shop to now have three locations with a wide variety of products at each, means the South Asian community in metro Atlanta today has access to products and goods from home that families 40 years ago did not.
Tommy Cherian was in diapers when the store first started, and back then his family knew the mother who created the brand Deep Foods. She was just starting her business by making Indian snacks in her garage and she would ship different products to the Cherian family to try out at the store.
Today Deep Foods is an international brand with items spanning snacks, frozen foods, spices and more. The brand is similar to Sysco Foods or Costco’s Kirkland brand for comparison, Cherian said.
“So now they’re like fourth or fifth generation kids, like my age group, they’re in there now…running the show,” Cherian said. “To grow a business like that or this (store) you can’t cut corners. You have to be true to your people and you have to do things the right way and…you’ll see the fruits of it over time.”
Over the years Cherian’s father made sure his son knew different parts of the family business from working as a stock boy to bussing tables at the restaurant run by his aunt that adjoined the store when it had moved to its second location in 1995.
“It’s a good, unique way of teaching someone how to run the business, but it’s been fun,” Cherian said, noting that his favorite part of working in the family business is the time he gets to spend with his family, who all run the various businesses.
A growing customer base
When you enter Cherians’ Decatur location, you can see hand painted murals across the walls depicting scenes from South Asia. Sometimes it’s crowded, like on the weekends, with people bustling in to get their weekly groceries or are preparing for an upcoming holiday. Sometimes it’s a few people leisurely walking through the store.
Bollywood music from different eras filters through the speakers as shoppers make their way around the store, filling bags with colorful fresh produce, stocking their carts with packets of frozen foods from South Asian brands, lugging burlap bags filled with rice and large packets of whole wheat flour.
The back wall is filled with large packets of different kinds of lentils, boxes of teas, bottles of coffee and chocolate powder for kids’ milk. There are aisles just dedicated to savory and sweet snacks that can be found in small neighborhood stores in India and shelves stacked with large packets of bright-colored spices, all listed at a competitive price.
Shoppers come from all over. Being in Decatur means the store attracts students from the local universities such as Georgia Tech, Emory, Georgia State. Even students from the University of Georgia in Athens come over the weekend to stock up, Cherian said.
Aside from students, families in neighboring states will also make trips down, such as Tennessee or Alabama. With so many South Asian businesses located in the Decatur area as well, the trip becomes a shopping adventure.
The store doesn’t just cater to one group of South Asians. The subcontinent is made up of a multitude of religions, cultures and cuisines. Cherian said the family makes sure to try and stock products for different communities, especially for the various holidays.
“We have a lot of Muslim customers, we have a lot of Hindu customers and I have a lot of Christian customers,” Cherian said. “So you’ve got to honor all of their holidays and make sure that everyone’s represented.”
But the store doesn’t just supply to individual customers. Cherian said they work with about 90% of the Indian restaurants in Atlanta to supply produce and spices. The connection to those restaurants has also yielded a loyal customer base.
“I’ve been a fan of Cherians because he’s been there from day one,” Noor Fazal, owner of the restaurant Zyka, said. “He knows the quality.”
In 2021, chef Meherwan Irani, owner of the Chai Pani restaurant group which has a location in Decatur, brought rapper Ludacris to Cherians to give him a lesson on Indian spices for Luda’s show, “Luda Can’t Cook.”
“Luda, this is where the big boys come, this is my house,” Irani said in a clip from the show at the store, as he leads Luda to a table laid out with spices.
It took time for the store to grow to where it is today in terms of its level of popularity, customer base and size. And it’s still growing. During the pandemic, where many businesses struggled to stay afloat because customers were limited, the family decided to try delivering groceries.
“But the orders got so exponentially large and within a short period of time,” Cherian said. With the demand so high and the logistics of planning delivery routes and times, they decided to partner with Instacart, which now does the majority of the home deliveries in the area.
Today the family businesses includes the three stores, the ownership of Grace Plaza, in Decatur, which sits across Patel Plaza and leases space to about 14 different businesses and organizations as well as the family’s distribution company, Grace Imports.
“If I were to ever tell you a motto of this store, I think it’s just for you to have a taste of home. That’s all it is. If you can find the things that you grew up with in India, and if you can find them here, I’m happy,” Cherian said.
Grace Imports, while separate from the stores, provides access to goods to South Asian stores across North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi and parts of Florida.
Cherian’s uncle, Mathew Cherian, oversees the farms in the Dominican Republic and Honduras that specifically grows produce that can be used in South Asian cooking such as tindura, Indian eggplant, Chinese eggplant, Chinese okra and opal squash.
“My uncle was also a main reason why we started the distribution and wholesale side because he had a knack for it. And so he would secure these famous brands, and we would take the rights for it for the southeast region,” Cherian said. “And so over time, you meet a lot of good friends and a lot of good suppliers that have stuck with us for maybe 20 plus years now.”
The distribution side can help South Asian communities and smaller stores that exist farther away from big stores like Cherians or Patel Brothers get access to products that might be used in everyday life in a South Asian household but are not typically found at an American store.
For South Asians living in communities with only these smaller stores, access to products can be limited and families might have to drive to multiple stores in multiple directions just to find a particular product.
Chetan Bhagwat, a new resident to Georgia used to live in Maryland where his access to South Asian stores was limited. While there was one store in his area, it was small and the variety was limited.
During the peak of the pandemic, the family ran out of dhania (cilantro) powder, which is a staple in North Indian cooking. After not finding the product he wanted at his nearby store, Bhagwat drove 40 miles just to find the powder. Today, Bhagwat doesn’t have to worry about that happening anymore now that he lives in the metro Atlanta area.
“I feel like that created a huge difference in my life because I can find everything here. There are like different grocery stores as well,” Bhagwat said.
A healthy competition with Patel Brothers
Just across from the Grace Plaza is Patel Plaza, owned by the family that runs Patel Brothers, a national South Asian grocery store chain based out of Chicago. Similar to Cherians, the Patel Brothers family opened a location in Decatur in the 1980s. Their shop was also small and moved around before the Plaza was bought in 2006 according to Dekalb County property records.
“At the end of the day, we’re all friends. So we have a good relationship with their family and so it works out pretty well,” Cherian said about the Patel family.
Both families have mutual respect for each other. It’s a healthy competition and keeps both sides on their toes. Plus, having both stores in the area means customers can easily go to each store to find what they’re looking for if one does not have what they need.
“He has his fixed 25%, I have my fixed 25%, the 50% we fight for,” said Rakesh Patel who helps run his family’s business, Patel Brothers. “When I step up my game, they’ll have to step up their game to make theirs more modern.”
In Georgia, Patel Brothers also has locations in Kennesaw and Suwanee. As a national chain, the Patel Brothers stores see different markets at each location. Patel said they try to concentrate on locations where there is a Desi market (people who descend from the South Asian subcontinent) but the stores and the family’s distribution company also supply products to other immigrant communities.
“Our biggest customers in Minneapolis are non-Indians; 40% of the African market, I control (via the family’s distribution company), because they use ghee, mango pulp, daal…wheat, all the stuff that we sell,” Patel said. “So we keep migrating to what customers want.”
The Patel family also has their own distribution company called Raja Foods which serves 19 states in the country in addition to their stores and centers located across the country, Patel said.
Both the Cherian and Patel families are also each looking at making more locations in Georgia as the South Asian population continues to boom in the metro area. Patel is looking to open up two in the metro Atlanta area, Cherians is looking at one.
“We wanted to grow as a company,” Cherian said. “I think that’s our long term goal is to build more stores. We just have to get the distribution correct.”
As far as their Decatur locations go, however, the two families have had a positive impact on the growth of South Asian businesses in the area, which in turn has led to increased access to South Asian culture. Both families own the land for their respective plazas, meaning they control the businesses that come in.
“It’s nice that no one can tell you what to do. It’s your right to whatever business you want to bring in, how you want to develop it, that’s upon you,” Cherian said.
Increased interest from Americans
As time has passed, American society has become more interested in South Asian culture and cuisine which has meant an increase in American customers at South Asian stores, including in Decatur where recent developments have led to new neighbors living near both Patel and Graze Plazas.
“It’s nice to see that these stores are making an influence or making a difference in the community and the different ethnicities are now able to experience what India is made out of,” Jay Varma, a Georgia resident since 1995, said. “It’s heartwarming.”
American stores have caught on to the growing interest and have also started including products related to South Asian food such as naan, which can sometimes be found in the baked goods section or ready-made Indian meals in the frozen section.
“They’re finally understanding our cuisine. They’re understanding our culture, and they realize that it’s not just one type of people that come into their stores, you get all kinds of ethnicities. And so they’re trying to cater to everyone. And vice versa for us,” Cherian said.
Even with these new developments in American stores, though, they can’t necessarily compete for the South Asian customers in the same way, Patel said.
“They only have the five masalas, we have 50 masalas. They have the five daals (lentils), we have 27 daals, because every single part of India eats a different cuisine basically,” Patel said. “So we keep everything. So when your mom wants to buy everything, she comes to me or Cherians.”
Locations for Cherians International Groceries Stores
— Decatur: 751 Dekalb Industrial Way Building #4, Decatur, GA 30033
— Duluth: 3890 Satellite Blvd, Duluth, GA 30096
— Cumming: 2255 Callaway Ct, Cumming, GA 30041
For more information, click here.
Locations for Patel Brothers in Georgia
— Decatur: 1709 Church St F, Decatur, GA 30033
— Suwanee: 3230 Caliber St, Suwanee, GA 30024
— Kennesaw: 2646 George Busbee Pkwy NW, Kennesaw, GA 30144
For more information, click here.
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