Growing Indian population brings new businesses to University City

Patel Brothers grocery store in a University City Boulevard strip center. Photo: Mary Newsom

It’s a Wednesday evening, and shoppers at the new Patel Brothers grocery store in Charlotte’s University City area stroll through aisles loaded with hundreds of Indian ingredients, snacks and condiments, among them 20-pound bags of various types of rice and flour as well as a wide selection of beans and chutneys.

The four-month-old, 35,000-square-foot store, the second opened in Mecklenburg County by a national Indian-owned grocery chain, debuted as one of the largest Indian grocery stores in the Southeast. It joined at least three other nearby stores selling Indian groceries, clothing, beauty and spiritual products – one of them at the far end of the same shopping center, The Commons at Chancellor Park, on University City Boulevard. All are purposefully located in the heart of the area’s emerging Indian community.

“The Indian population is growing fast,” said Nikunj Patel, a managing partner of the Mecklenburg locations of Patel Brothers, which includes a nearly 10-year-old store in Pineville in the southwest part of the county. “We are thinking ahead when we opened this store.”

As Charlotte-Mecklenburg’s population has ballooned over the past few decades, its Indian community similarly has grown, bringing changes to the city’s landscape, as well as its culinary options. A half dozen architecturally distinctive Hindu temples are spread across the county. Indian restaurants have opened across the area, with some offering weekly dosa night specials featuring dosas, a popular crepe-like dish stuffed with various vegetables. The annual Festival of India, which attracts more than 20,000 people to uptown Charlotte, celebrates its 24th anniversary this year. Several movie theaters regularly show Bollywood movies featuring Indian actors and subtitles. An Indian-American, who came to the United States as an immigrant, serves on the Charlotte City Council.

According to 2016 estimates by the Census Bureau, based on its American Community Survey, nearly 17,000 foreign-born Indians are among the largest group of immigrants in Mecklenburg County. People born in India are 11.3 percent of the total foreign-born population of 148,000, second only to those born in Mexico, who make up 18 percent of the total foreign-born population. Nearly 22,000 people in Mecklenburg identify their race as Indian, according to the census, representing 40.5 percent of nearly 54,000 who identify as Asian.

WHERE IMMIGRANTS FROM INDIA LIVE IN MECKLENBURG COUNTY

Map: Laura Simmons                                    SOURCE: 2016 American Community Survey 5-year estimates

 “Many Indians are getting jobs,” said Gotham Kumar, an Indian-born application systems analyst with TIAA who moved to the area from St. Louis eight months ago and who was buying groceries recently at Patel Brothers. “This area is growing for Indians, Americans, everybody. People are moving to Charlotte.”

The highest concentration of Indian Americans and foreign-born Indians live in neighborhoods in northeast Charlotte’s University City area.

The strongest attraction for the area is to live near jobs, primarily in the 2,200-acre University Research Park, which houses research and banking companies including TIAA, Wells Fargo, Duke Power, IBM and others. Some of the companies seek controversial H-1B visas, which allow employers to hire foreign workers in specialized occupations such as computer and technology jobs. According to a New York Times article, India is the country of origin for more than 80 percent of H-1B visa recipients nationally.

At nearby UNC Charlotte, nearly 90 percent of the international students in the master’s program for electrical and engineering are from India as well as a similar percentage in the master’s program for computer science. After graduation the students find jobs in Charlotte and elsewhere.

“Every year we get a significant number of students who apply from India,” said Asis Nasipuri, chair of the electrical and computer engineering department. “For some reason, Indian students are attracted to these fields.”

Gopal Karsala considered those factors when deciding where to locate an Indian restaurant in early 2017.

“It just made sense to pick this location,” said Karsala, an owner of Sithara Indian restaurant, in a strip shopping center on North Tryon Street. The restaurant is the street from the UNC Charlotte campus and less than a mile from the Lynx Blue Line light rail station on the UNC Charlotte campus.

Karsala, also an owner of Galaxy Real Estate, described the University City area as a starter community for some Indians, who live in apartments for a while and then move elsewhere in the county when they buy homes.

For 15 years, Bala Chetty has been watching and responding to the changes in the Indian community.

Chetty opened a small Indian grocery store in 2003 across from UNC Charlotte in a shopping center on University City Boulevard about a mile north of the other two groceries. “There was no shopping in this area,” he said, “and we thought the Indian community was growing.”

His first expansion to an adjoining space came in 2005. A larger expansion and renovation, including a butcher shop and kitchen for hot foods, began last year and will be completed soon. Chetty has changed the name of his store to Origin International Foods and increased its grocery offerings from only Indian ingredients to foods for a variety of ethnic groups.

“The Indian community has quadrupled,” he said. “I am trying to carve a niche.”

India Grocers is in the same shopping center, The Commons at Chancellor Park, as Patel Brothers. Photo: Mary Newsom