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Neon Tommy - Annenberg digital news

Grocery store acts as hub for new Indian immigrants

Laura J. Nelson |
February 28, 2012 | 5:35 p.m. PST


Customers wait in line at Samosa House, one of several stores that hire new immigrants from Southeast Asia. (photo by Laura J. Nelson)
Customers wait in line at Samosa House, one of several stores that hire new immigrants from Southeast Asia. (photo by Laura J. Nelson)

When Aghat left his small town in India to join distant relatives in California, he didn't speak much English and he didn't have a job.

The only thing he had was a name scribbled on a piece of paper: Munish Makkar.

So when Aghat arrived in Los Angeles in the fall of 2008, that's who he sought out.  He said he found him at Ambala Cash & Carry, an Indian grocery in Artesia.

Within days, Aghat had gone to work stocking shelves at a local grocery store.

 "Munish wants to help," Aghat said. "A lot of people know who he is."

In 12 years, Makkar has watched Ambala become one of a handful of unifying forces in a neighborhood full of new immigrants.

He sees roughly a dozen people walk through his doors each year looking for work or help getting on their feet. An employment office is just down Pioneer Boulevard from the corner grocery, but isn't nearly as effective as a phone call from a friend, some say.

After 20 years in the hospitality industry, including a restaurant venture in Venice Beach named Hurry Curry, Makkar knows enough business owners that Indians who've just arrived can frequently find work, even if they have no prior experience in the U.S.

Sometimes, the job seeker can even land a position at Ambala.

"It's like a show," said Makkar's son, Preet Singh, the store's second-in-command. He said they don't discriminate based on religion or background. "We want to let them perform and give them a chance. They're new here."

Mukkar's store is a hub of international activity that belies the apparent sameness of Artesia's Little India. The store, which faces a strip center of clothing stores and threading salons on Artesia's busy Pioneer Boulevard, looks deceptively small from the outside.

Inside, the atmosphere is a blend of cultures and histories. The crowded shelves bear a combination of Indian groceries, toiletries and household goods imported from across Southeast Asia and sold by vendors from around the world.  

Makkar speaks Punjabi to a stooped older woman buying flour and lentils; his son, Preet Singh, speaks Spanish to the men stocking the shelves. Ambala's cashiers are Muslim and some stockers are Mexican Catholic. Makkar and Singh are Sikhs.

Somehow, it works.

"The religion of business is money," Makkar said.

Singh, 44, manages the store when Makkar is away on business. He has every detail of the hundreds of goods within the narrow aisles memorized: price, origin and – most importantly – vendor.

Rather than all the tea, for example, coming from one vendor in Southern California, each brand – Tata, Lipton, Brooke Bonde – is supplied by someone different, meaning the hundreds of Indian, Pakistani and Baghladeshi products inside Cash & Carry come from hundreds of vendors.

“The Indian market is a monopoly," Makkar said, then paused to answer a question from one of his employees in Spanish. "Anything you see here, it's because we know someone in India."

The network extends to Samosa House, a restaurant and dry goods store in Culver City. Inside, a statue of Ganesh watches over a row of linoleum tables, where customers cut into steaming plates of curry, rice and bhel puri.

Owner Vivha Bhojak and previous owners Ramesh and Phulan Chander have employed a series of soft-spoken new immigrants to serve the restaurant's Food Network-famous food, often sent from Artesia by Makkar.

"They feel more comfortable with us: even if we aren't all exactly the same culturally, we speak the same language," Makkar said.

The salesmen who bring the goods to his store aren't necessarily the vendors who import the goods to the United States, Makkar explained. Most salesmen who come to the store peddling teas, vitamins and henna are Sikh or Hindu Indian with ties to Makkar. Their vendors are mostly Chinese or Arabic, Buddhist or Muslim.

The religion, Singh said, could matter less.

"What matters is that you work hard and you want to work," Singh said "This is a creative place, and the rest, we can figure out."

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