Normally, Devon Avenue — Chicago’s main cluster of South Asian restaurants and shops — would be bustling this time of year thanks to Diwali, the festival of lights celebrated in India and in many parts of South Asia. This year, the holiday had the potential to take on added importance in America, with Kamala Harris primed to move into the White House next year as the first Indian-American vice president. Instead, some restaurants are closing and others are seeing a precipitous drop in sales that has some worrying about the future of the subcontinental hub where Indian, Pakistani, Nepalese, Bangladeshi, and other communities converge
Chef Jasmine Sheth, who runs the delivery-only restaurant Tasting India in Andersonville, grew up celebrating the holiday in Mumbai. She describes memories of celebrations in India when she and her family would buy fireworks and eat sweets; in Chicago, she’s trying to keep the tradition alive by selling her own special mithai box. The sweets come in ornate boxes — a tradition that recognizes special occasions, from holidays to weddings — she found from a vendor from India.
“We would light fireworks until 2, 3 in the morning,” Sheth says. “It’s one of my fondest memories of growing up in India.”
As the community observed Diwali on Saturday, November 14, few families gathered at Devon’s restaurants to feast on thalis, pakoras, or pooris. Mayor Lori Lightfoot delivered a coronavirus advisory a few days before the holiday, urging residents to stay at home. So there was little to celebrate down the two-mile stretch of Devon in the city’s West Ridge neighborhood. The novel coronavirus has kept visitors away from the strip since March, with restaurants closing due to the indoor dining ban and xenophobic fears. The neighborhood will incur another blow as Patel Brothers, the iconic South Asian grocer, closed its Devon location on Diwali. Management says it’s a temporary measure; their plan is to remodel with a March 15 targeted reopening date.
But what will Devon look like when Patel Brothers reopens in four months? Some restaurants, including stalwarts like Viceroy, closed even before the pandemic took hold. Mysore Woodlands, one of the community’s top vegetarian restaurants, closed this week due to COVID-19 and a dispute with its landlord. More closures are expected in the coming months, with several rumors floating around the community. Sacchu Khatwani, who owns two of the area’s more popular restaurants, Tiffin Indian Kitchen and Udupi Palace, says business has dropped by 80 percent since March. Still, Khatwani clings to the hope that a vaccine will bring some order by spring: “That’s why I’m hoping, that it’s next year — hopefully from March on,” he says.
Devon means different things to different people. For immigrants, it might be home to their first apartment in Chicago, a manifestation of a desire to be around people who understand their native cultures and to be near restaurants that serve food resembling that which they ate at home. For children of immigrants, it can be an introduction to culture. But the museum tours, which take groups up and down Devon and allow them to sample food with a guide as a way of connecting people to the culture, have been cancelled since March.
“We have been friends with Indian-American restaurants for many years,” says Amita Banerji, director of the National Indo-American Museum, which is based in Chicago. ”We have been their friends; they have been good partners to us for our food tours and walks.”
Devon’s predicament isn’t unique; in San Francisco, Japantown business owners find themselves in a similar situation. Devon has seen its share of changes through the years, but with this recent batch of closings and the lingering effects of COVID-19, there’s worry that Devon as most Chicagoans know it will never return.
Change isn’t new
If passersby look up at those brown honorary street signs fastened to light poles along Devon, they’ll notice a reminder of when Chicago’s Jewish community had dibs on the neighborhood. Parts of Devon are called “Golda Meir Boulevard,” as a tribute to the Israeli prime minister. And sure enough, Jewish delis and other businesses dominated the strip until the 1980s. Other businesses with non-South Asian owners, like Cary’s Lounge, remain. But the area’s identity has shifted in recent years, and the evolution of Fresh Farms — the supermarket on the corner of Devon and Talman — demonstrates the transformation.
In the 1980s, customers at Fresh Farms would need to make multiple stops, visiting stores like the now-shuttered Jai-Hind Foods or Patel Brothers if they wanted South Asian groceries. Fresh Farms customers could find boxes of mangoes and American snacks like non-Cadbury chocolate; they could also pick up Jewish staples like matzo meal and schmaltz. But items like saffron and basmati rice weren’t available; customers would have to visit a specialized vendor, like Patel Brothers, for that. For Indian Americans, Patel Brothers is a household name and among the first Indian grocers in America. They opened the first store in 1972 along Devon and drew visitors from other large midwestern cities like Detroit and Milwaukee. Back then, none of those cities had a nearby South Asian hub with grocery stores.
But as communities change, so did Fresh Farms. Several years ago, the store widened its inventories and began carrying more spices and items aimed at South Asians. While supermarkets across the country reported shortages of flour in April and May in the early stages of the pandemic, Fresh Farms manager Chingli Hsing — who’s been manager since 1992 — says there was a major run on dal at her store.
But Devon can’t sustain itself on the demand for lentils alone. Population shifts toward the suburbs have taken the spotlight away from the strip. In Naperville, the owner of the Mall of India, the complex of Indian stores and restaurants that opened its first phase over the summer, described the project as putting all of Devon indoors and near the suburbs where the Indian population continues to increase.
“There is no need [to go to Devon],” owner Vinoz Chanamolu said back in January. “Previously, you’d go for grocery, clothing, gold... whatever you needed — you’d go to Devon.”
Devon sits in West Ridge, a neighborhood that also counts a significant Syrian community. Census figures from 2010 show that Asians made up 22.4 percent of West Ridge’s population. The latest census numbers aren’t yet available, but according to 2018 American Community Survey figures, about 48,000 live in the 60645 zip code — one of the two zip codes that encompass Devon. The number of Asians in that zip code decreased and sits at 16 percent. (Of course, “Asian” can many any number of racial groups for those surveys.)
During the pandemic, even more of the immigrant community is staying home. Banerji and the museum are trying; for example, a tour last year was full of University of Chicago students who were trying to burst through their Hyde Park bubble to see other parts of the city. The novel coronavirus has taken away this marketing tool.
“We want to get back to that,” Banerji says. “We want to get to the position where we can see each other again.”
On busy days, Devon is packed with cars, making what should be a five-minute drive a half an hour. But those times are in the past. Health experts crushed consumer confidence in indoor dining, with good reason. That’s led business owners across the country to figure out new ways make money. Kamdar Plaza owner Dinesh Doshi says business has dropped by 50 percent since March.
“Right now, because of the COVID situation, people are scared to go to Devon,” he says.
Trying to adapt
As the community shrinks, Devon’s restaurants and other businesses need the support of the outside world or the area will continue to fade. One of Chicago’s highest profile desis is Alpana Singh, the popular restaurant owner and host of Check, Please! She sits on the board of Choose Chicago, the city’s tourism arm. Even as an Indian American, she says Devon can be intimidating to outsiders; she wishes there was a definitive and accessible guide to the area.
“It’s a form of xenophobia, is what it is,” Singh says of people’s reluctance to visit Devon, both pre- and post-pandemic. “It’s crazy.”
Devon is looking for a champion, someone to help it adapt. In other parts of Chicago, restaurants have become general stores, while others have created more takeout-friendly menus. But that’s not happening on Devon. Kamdar Plaza’s Doshi doesn’t spend much time on marketing as he’s depended on word of mouth. There was no need to advertise or engage too deeply with social media in the past. One group, On Devon, has helped, but it’s hard to convince older business owners to invest in social media.
Another challenge: Grubhub and other third-party services don’t deliver from Devon to downtown neighborhoods. But as 2020 is the year of the pivot, Doshi is trying something new. He’s using Quicklly, a delivery app for restaurants and grocers; he’s also launched a tiffin service with weekly or daily drop-offs. These are traditionally home-cooked meals brought to workers for lunch, and they’ve found popularity with immigrants who want a taste of home and are apprehensive about how Westerners prepare South Asian food. Quicklly can connect Kamdar with Downtown Chicago and suburban customers: A tiffin service has been something often clamored for in the West Loop, where it’s a reoccurring topic on the True West Loop Facebook page (Quicklly delivers there). It’s the same model another company, Chowbus, has employed in Chinatown. Many Chinese restaurants in that neighborhood credit the company in keeping the suburban Chinese community connected through delivery beyond Chicago’s borders.
Quicklly has been trying to make inroads with Devon businesses during the pandemic. Its founder Keval Raj says business is five times better in recent months than it was at the pandemic’s start. Quicklly’s got a customer base of 15,000 users with 65 vendors, including Kamdar, Fresh Farms, and Sukhadia, the popular sweet shop. While Doshi raves about Quicklly, many businesses owners haven’t heard of the platform that was once known as “MyValue365.com.” The old name didn’t catch on.
Elsewhere, Sachu Khatwani owns India Sari Palace, an iconic store that’s been open since 1972, and two restaurants — Tiffin and Udupi Palace — that have seen business drop across the board. At the sari shop, that’s likely due to the lack of business from functions like weddings in 2020; for the restaurants, he points to the neighborhood’s lack of outdoor seating options. Tiffin has no outdoor seating; Udupi has a modest table stationed in front. “I don’t have any outside seating on the street’s main route,” Khatwani says. “Then winter is here and there’s nothing you can do about it.”
Kamdar’s Doshi says he doesn’t think there’s much of a demand for outdoor seating in the neighborhood. Devon isn’t Downtown Chicago, he says. While Fulton Market has dining domes and Lakeview closes its streets for restaurants, Devon lacks those resources. While other restaurants see patios as a pandemic lifeline, Doshi doesn’t see the point.
That’s been a challenge for Devon businesses for years. A group of core business owners, including Mohammed Junaid of Pakistani restaurant Sabri Nihari, meet monthly to discuss ways to improve the area. Sabri, the rare Devon restaurant that’s attracted praise from non-Asian critics (it’s been a fixture on Michelin’s Bib Gourmand list until recently), is fortunate to have a space on a corner where there’s room on the side street for outdoor dining. Junaid has also embraced social media and more modern marketing approaches. But still, Devon often gets ignored; American Express is not as likely to set up yurts in West Ridge like intended on Fulton Market.
Devon isn’t the only international enclave in Chicago facing peril during the crisis. The Tribune recently published a story detailing the struggles in Greektown and Little Italy. Greektown has long been threatened by hungry developers who have seen real estate prices near Randolph Restaurant Row inflate. Meanwhile, changing demographics are blamed on why Little Italy’s restaurants have suffered. Some of those feels similar to how Koreatown has shrunk over the years in Albany Park.
But Devon faces unique obstacles, and part of it comes from local media coverage. Two years ago, Chicago magazine ran a story meant to critique the city’s status as an elite culinary destination. When the article stated immigrant enclaves “feel so tired,” Devon was caught as an innocent victim, dragged into an argument about the overall caliber of the city’s restaurants. Yet its place in that pecking order matters little to its actual community.
More pertinent is a Block Club Chicago story from April about West Ridge and its COVID-19 rate. The story, written based on an email from Ald. (50th Ward) Debra Silverstein using state data to warn constituents about COVID-19 risks, didn’t quote any business owners. It does, however, feature a photo of a storefront with American and Indian flags. It’s had a negative impact on business, Junaid and other Devon entrepreneurs say. Faraz Sardharia saw the story’s impact from all the way in Lincoln Park where is restaurant is located. Sardharia used profanity in describing the original story, saying it unfairly painted Devon as a super-spreader center.
“They think Devon is full of COVID,” Junaid says.
Sardharia is the chef and owner at Tandoor Char House, a Lincoln Park South Asian restaurant that blends Pakistani, Indian, and American flavors in items like burgers and chicken wings, plus the traditional desi classics. The feeling Sardharia and Junaid share wasn’t unlike when publications used photos of people of Chinese and Japanese descent when writing about COVID-19 early in the pandemic. When West Ridge’s positivity rate improved, other stories were published, but without any context on how the disease disproportionately harms communities of color. Google now caches the story’s headline as one of the top search results when researching by zip code. The damage was done.
The impact hurts Sardharia as Devon is an institution to him. His father owned a restaurant on the street, Lal Quila (which translates to Red Fort, a famous structure in New Delhi). While Devon is many things to many people, it was there Sardharia fell in love with South Asian cuisine.
“It’s culture — if it wasn’t for Devon, I don’t think I’d be where I am today,” he says.
Historically, Chicago’s South Asian restaurants haven’t fared well in areas away from Devon. There have been a few exceptions — places like Cumin, Chicago Curry House, Vermillion, and the Bombay Wraps mini chain. Last year saw the arrival of a trio of restaurants — Superkhana International (Logan Square), Rooh (West Loop), and Vajra (West Town) — that appear to be flourishing, all things considered. Meanwhile, Wazwan and Thattu opened inside Politan Row in West Loop. Thattu introduced many to appam and other Keralan delights while earning a James Beard Award nomination. Owners Margaret Pak and husband Vinod Kalathil are currently taking a road trip through America while plotting their post-pandemic futures.
Even before last week’s temporary closure, Patel Brothers had shifted away from Devon. Last year, it took over an abandoned Toys R Us building in suburban Niles to open a new flagship store. The store on Devon is not the original; since its humble beginnings 38 years ago, the chain has grown to more than 50 locations across 19 states. There are suburban stores in Naperville and Schaumburg.
“All these places have small hubs of Indian-American restaurants and Indian grocery stores, which kind of serve their needs at this point,” says Banerji.
Khatwani isn’t waiting for the city or federal government to help at Tiffin and Udupi. Though rumors have swirled, he says both will still open and that he’ll just have to ride it out. He says he has little choice. If he closes, his workers will be without paychecks. “My guys in the kitchen, they are working so I have to to feed them, I have to get the orders to them,” he says. “I’m not making any money, but at least they can survive. It’s okay.”