By Radhika Gupta
The Heart of Punjab stands out among the trendy boutiques of Ninth Avenue because of its cafeteria-like appearance and its simple food offerings. No white table clothes here or fancy, polished cement floors. The customers, too, are different.
Whether it’s the 7 a.m. rush to get a cup of tea or the end-of-shift set at four in the afternoon, 90 percent of the customers crowding the deli’s laminated counters are Indian and Pakistani taxi drivers.
A New York City cab driver in the early 1990s, Mohinder Gill opened the Heart of Punjab after an accident forced him to give up his cab. He conceived the idea while driving and realizing there were no places in Manhattan where cabbies could get cheap home-style Indian food or take a quick bathroom break.
He said he chose to open in Chelsea because the rent was reasonable, at $2,500 per month, and there was ample parking nearby, a must for customers who must park before they eat. From 1992 and until 2007, Gill’s nose for the needs of his fellow cab drivers proved to be right on target. The deli used to serve about 500 customers a day.
But in the last two years Gill has seen his profit fall by 70 percent, mainly because a bike lane, added to the avenue in front of his deli, has forced cab drivers to park elsewhere or not at all.
“Taxi drivers don’t like to park far from where they’re going” says Ranjit Singh, a cab driver, as he stands sipping his tea at Gill’s counter.
Most cab drivers work a nine-hour shift and take three, 30-minute breaks. Each break costs them around $30. If they park far away, they waste time walking to the cafe or the restaurant.
Three months ago, the city completed its goal of installing 420 miles of bike lanes in all five boroughs, doubling the number of bike lanes miles of three years ago.
While most bikers are happy with the additional lanes, the move has generated disapproval from merchants in areas where these lanes have sprung up. Their complaint is that they were not consulted about the process. Mayor Bloomberg, who has taken a very activist approach towards enforcing bike lanes all over the city, has said that every lane was approved by the relevant community board.
But Community Board 4 Chairman John Weiss has come under criticism from merchants and local businesses for unilaterally enforcing the bike lane on Ninth and Eighth avenues.
“I came to work one morning and heard the drill machines,” said Gill about the construction for the bike lane.
Few businesses in Manhattan, a city of walkers, are as dependant on drivers as The Heart of Punjab. According to a survey by the Taxi and Limousine Commission of New York in 2005, the last year in which numbers were compiled, South Asian immigrants make up about 38 percent of taxi drivers in the city (14 percent from Pakistan, 14 percent from Bangladesh and 10 percent from India).
When the deli opened in 1992, Gill’s wife would cook all the food, while Gill advertised the deli at airport pick up points. The first week his wife made a special corn bread available in most north Indian villages. She had made 60 loaves of the bread for one day, but Gill sold out in three hours. Encouraged, Gill started adding more items to the menu. Indian sweets and biscuits and most importantly, Indian tea or Chai, soon followed. A foamy, milky, cardamom infused preparation, the Indian chai is the fuel for most Indian workers everywhere in the world.
Over the years, the deli has become not only a rest stop in a grueling day for this class of immigrant workers, but also a place to meet old friends from the homeland.
The Heart of Punjab stands between an expensive pet store on its left and a charcuterie on its right. A stack of Indian newspapers lie in its store window and the entire space is dominated by a large steel display counter where steaming curries and snacks are kept warm. Two Indian men stand behind the counters, stirring the containers and expeditiously putting together the rice with curry combinations for customers. There is no seating area; customers mostly eat standing up at a long plank of wood on the wall opposite the steel counter. There are shelves above the plank which hold various video tapes of recent Indian movies.
Rajinder Kumar, a cab driver, has been eating at the Heart of Punjab for 15 years, virtually from the day Gill opened.
“It’s a beloved institution for me,” he said.
He said he senses Gill’s troubles and hopes that he won’t have to close the shop.
At 60 years of age with two daughters in college, Gill is a worried man.
“I don’t know how to do anything else” he said, as he rearranged the ketchup bottles on the long counter.
Because a meal is $5, Gill needs to sell at least 80 meals a day just to break even. He could raise prices but then he risks losing his most loyal clientele. Gill is not giving up just yet but his eyes look tired as his anxious face is reflected on the glass front of the counter that he wipes clean.