For the release of the Noah x Adidas Gazelles, we featured Kulwinder Singh (better known as Jani) in front of Punjabi Deli, his vegetarian Indian eatery, which he opened in the Lower East Side in 1994.
Those of you who follow @newyorknico may recognize Jani as one of the many small business owners Nico’s been helping by leveraging his Instagram following to bring attention to the plight of independent businesses in NYC. His hashtag #momnpopdrop serves as an increasingly crucial social-media rallying point for many of the old-school shop owners and vendors who make the city what it is. In Jani’s case, it helped lead to a successful GoFundMe campaign that raised over $50,000 to help save Punjabi Deli, which has been hit hard by the pandemic.
Punjabi, at 114 East 1st Street (near the corner of Houston Street) is a narrow storefront that sells a vast variety of homestyle Indian food for takeout. Their authentic, flavorful vegetarian cuisine is a wholesome departure from typical restaurant fare, and offered at a fraction of the price.
Nico sat down with Jani to hear more about his life’s story, which took him, as a young man, from Punjab to Greece (where he joined the merchant marine and worked on ships around the world), and then to New York, where he toiled in a Greek restaurant, founded his own construction company, and drove a yellow cab for four years before opening Punjabi Deli. In many ways, it’s a classic tale of immigrant grit and hard work, leading a small business owner and his family through many struggles, and eventually, to success. But it’s Jani’s uniquely optimistic energy and philosophy of spreading love that makes his story stand out, and that happy, open spirit infuses Punjabi Deli to this day. The following are excerpts from their conversation.
You used to be 24-hours?
Used to be, but right now things are so bad. I used to have six employees, but now I have only three. Because if you don't have income, you can't afford it. But thank God, we are keeping the store; we don't want the store to go away from us... We feel very grateful for Nico and everybody's help.
We all love you, you’re a staple.
We feel very happy. And also what is happening in this world, when the President Joe Biden, he’s president for us. I don’t care if Trump declare or no declare, for me Biden is President!
So when did you come to the States, and what made you come?
I got a green card in 1980. I was working on a ship, in the merchant marine, and I went all around the world. But I feel, to stay, the best country on this earth is the United States. I say I want to stay here... It was our grandfather's brother, he retired, and his son, he was an Amtrak engineer here in America. He says, I want to take you. I say, no, I don't know where to go, I don't know. And then he says, you will. And then I say, I don't want to go. I went to Greece and joined the ship. When it came to America, I said, “This is wonderful!”
What about it made it so wonderful?
We have so much opportunity to do whatever you want to do. Nowhere else in the world has that much opportunity. Only in this city do we have people from 150 countries. They are staying with each other, doing the business. We feel very happy. There’s no discrimination like what is happening in the other states. In this city, we are very friendly with each other; very happy.
When did you open Punjabi Deli?
In '94 I made this store. After that, my son, he was at that time about 4, no, 3-years old, when I bought this store
Was business good? How did you get the word out?
It was so busy, because the people didn’t have any Uber or any other thing, all the people were in the yellow taxi.
How did they know to come here?
Actually, we used to have radios inside the yellow cab. I spoke to all my fellow cabbies over the radio: “I'm here, I opened this Punjabi Deli,” this and that everybody could hear me, and they said, okay, we will come here to use the bathroom and buy something, coffee. And at that time, taxis, all the yellow cabs, we don't have phones, the mobile phones, we don't have this thing. The only thing was the radio, which was like the walkie-talkie, right? That’s how we spoke to each other, blah, blah. And once one person came, he told the others, thank god.
So what percentage of your clientele are cab drivers?
Right now, cab drivers are 5%.
What was it when you first opened?
95% by the yellow cab.
But right now, 95% of the people are from our community here, in the East Village. We've got people who come to buy the food to take to their jobs. Because food, the price, if you go to any Indian restaurant, they have a minimum $20 you have to pay for the food. Right? Here, $7, $8, you can fill your stomach and feel much better.
What would you say was the best year for Punjabi Deli?
Best years actually right now, 2000’s. Every time, the reality is, when you do the business, if you don't have the headache, you don't have the business. You have to keep the headache all the time on your head, to be honest. Right?
How did you see things change after 9/11?
After 9/11, we closed the store for seven days. Seven days. Seven days after we opened the store, all the dirt from the air came into the store. It was so bad. But the day of, my younger brother was here in the store. After he came in that day, everything got so bad, and then in the evening, we couldn’t even take the trains–we walked from the Williamsburg Bridge on the BQE and came home to the Richmond Hill, four of us walked. People were all walking on the bridge; because they weren’t letting cars in and out of the city, they stopped everything. It was a very horrible time.
But you survived that time. Do you feel confident that you can stay open throughout the virus, or are you worried?
We will try our best to keep it open. We don't want our employees to be out of a job. At least we can help, we can be there, we can pay everything, and we will stay strong… Before I made this advertisement for the shoes, I went to get the corona test, and they say everything is okay, you don't have any kind of a problem related to the corona. And then I make this advertisement for the shoes, right? Adidas. When somebody gets the test, inside we have some kind of feeling, fear, maybe negative, maybe positive, maybe negative, maybe positive. But when you think strongly inside, and keep your mind, it cannot be. If it happened, what’s the big deal? I’ll drink plenty of orange juice for four days and make it go away! Finish!
I gotta try that. You could have the cure to coronavirus in this article.
Very excited about that. Alright, cool, I gotta run.
Everything is okay?
Jani, perfect, thank you, man, that was great.
God bless you guys.