Sunday, June 26, 2005

Indian Grocery Stores

My wife and I were on our weekly Indian grocery shopping trip at Namaste Plaza in Sunnyvale today and a short conversation my wife had with an employee once again highlighted how different our Indian grocery stores are from the other stores.

My wife, who was completely dissatisfied with the quality of the vegetables, mentioned the same to the employee, who happened to be in the same area, slapping price labels on some items(his dress indicated his was higher up in the chain than delivery boy or stocker). His response to her was "Its OK ma'am. Our business is as good as it has always been and we are even opening new stores". Implicit in his response was his lack of concern at my wife not coming back to the store. Our $30 weekly bill is not going to make or break the store but has this man heard of the phrase "customer service"?

Though they are essentially grocery stores like Safeway, Albertsons, etc., Indian grocery stores seem to exist in a world all their own. The phrase "When in Rome, do as Romans do" does not seem to apply to them at all.

An Indian store can usually be spotted by its exterior appearance. There are boxes of vegetables and fruits out in the open with hand-written signs advertising their low prices. The setting does not improve when we go in. There is hardly any wall-space available with all the advertisements for upcoming music shows, sales, classes targetting Indians, etc. (ofcourse the quality of the wall in the places without such flyers tempts us to put one up just so that the space is not visible any more!). Crates and boxes are haphazardly spread around with no concern for customer safety and (I'm guessing) safety rules.

Items are misplaced in all the aisles and the floors are littered with rice and various podis (its really amazing that the same desis who are so conscious of littering in an American store don't think twice about doing the same here). The situation gets worse if the store sells eatables like samosas, puffs, etc. Several packages have been opened in the aisles and crushed packets are a common sight. Customer service is almost non-existent with queries regarding the location of an item getting either an "I don't know" or "there", with a finger vaguely pointed at the aisles to the right or the left of the answerer. And there's always the fear of seeing the smiling, over-friendly desi who is either an Amway representative or the owner of a fledgeling startup who wants us to "spend a few minutes next weekend to listen to what he is doing".

But until the day Safeway starts stocking murungakkai and vazhakkai and chilli powder and puli and all those other uniquely Indian vegetables and spices our tongues have become addicted to, Indian grocery stores are going to be an inescapable part of life in the US. Being in the Bay area, Indian stores are a dime a dozen. Over the years we've jumped from one store to the other for one reason or the other. We've gone from Bharath Bazaar(too dirty) to India Cash & Carry(not much variety in vegetables) to Coconut Hill(too far) to New India Bazaar(too crowded and hence, slow) to Spiceland(poor quality of vegetables) to Namaste Plaza. We've been going to the last mentioned for a while now since it was convenient, cheap and had lots of vegetables (ofcourse, the free DVD rentals for groceries helped too).

But after today, we're not sure if we're gonna be going there again. So the search for a good Indian grocery store continues...

37 Comments:

At 2:28 AM, Blogger detracked said...

hehe

 
At 8:07 AM, Anonymous Vijay said...

Well, if you can complain living in Bay Area think about the rest of desis in the US, especially ones like us who live in a smaller town and are left with no choice.

Basically desi businesses lack professionalism and customer-service is non-existent. Restaurants dont fare any better.Service/quality is rank bad in many places.

And regarding Amway/quixtar, desi couples will approach you in bookstores like Barnes and Noble and other places and will just strike a conversation and try to hook you up. They will invite you to their house and give you items to eat that they bought from those stores. All of them will have vague names and taste bad. Their whole house would be stocked with items like that. They will show you a video or two and then convince you to sign the form immediately. I went thru all this and in the end politely refused it all. Immediately their own demeanour changes. They are almost like a cult, these Quixtar people. A strange experience overall, never knew there would be desis like this in US.

 
At 9:09 AM, Anonymous Vijays said...

Enna BB,'Rules Ramanujam' Hangovera? :-) Bay areala irunthum pulambarele...hmm.. Maybe I should make you come to my place (where the nearest Indian grocery store is just 75 miles away!) and stay here for 6 months, 'desiya geetham' style ;-)

 
At 9:23 AM, Anonymous ram said...

i live in orange county...couple of indian groceries in tustin, which is abt 4-5 miles from where i live...
one grocery named "Saral." the owner is a really nice person who always takes time to chat with customers n stuff abt movies, fresh veg., etc...only problem is he spends too much time that waiting in line can be quite an ordeal...there's also a golltee maami who runs a kinda mess inside the grocery store...nijamaave mess thaan andha maami! food's average, wait times are looong...u almost have to sing, "enna samayalo?!"
:)

 
At 10:08 AM, Blogger Balaji said...

vijay, atleast in the bay area, indian restaurants seem much better than the grocery stores. they're pretty good on customer service. i think its a combination of competition and having to serve a foreign clientele. indian stores need either or both of those before they become better me thinks...

vijays, good one :-) but i do have u beat on that one. when i did my masters the nearest indian store was more than 100 miles away and we had no car :-) so been there, done that!

ram, namaste plaza is a telugu store too. and they too have a hotel though its in a separate section. that one has nosedived in quality too...

 
At 10:20 AM, Blogger Vijay Ramamurthi said...

Nice post
First time commenting here.

He he polambing in Bay area.
But I guess this is a common feature of Indian stores in most cities. Here in Tempe, AZ there is sizeable student population, and Indian stores which are nearby for obvious reasons treat the students like second rate people plus the regular stuff like expired food items, I once threatened to call the food services dept since they refused to refund my money for a bad smelling food packet.


Then came a chinese super market some thing like safeway which has all the indian vegetables/spices, I mean there is an isle called "India Foods", it is very good at good prices
and a fantastic collection of fresh vegetables. Once it got popular the local shops are starting to mend their ways.

Sorry for the long comment.
eppaduikku
Vijay Ramamurthi

 
At 10:47 AM, Blogger Adaengappa !! said...

As vijay said, try shopping vegetables from fresh chinese or jamaican markets than desi stores. Bet u get goo veggies than mutthal frozen vendai and murungaikaai's...

Unga area la ippadina..inge Jackson heights ( aka jaikishen nagar) ku pona kothwal chavadi/koyambedu market poitu vanthaa madiri irukum..But, pakathu block of korean shops looks Spic 'n Span..Naama neraiyave maaranum.....

 
At 11:22 AM, Blogger Orange Fronkey said...

I havent had that problem actually...

THe nearest store for us... (in Astoria) is 2 hours away in Beaverton... (the one that was near my old apartment). Its run by Malayalees husband & wife, and are very nice. They love to chit-chat, and know it when you've been missing for over a week or so.. and they are very helpful as well, if I dont know where something is, they'll go get it for me.

They tell me when sri lankan groceries arrive and stuff, and if i dont get something that i usually get, they ask me if they want it, cuz they might have it somewhere that i didnt see...

the thing is that they get stuff either on monday or friday, i forget, so whenever i happen to go over, they wont have things fresh fresh at times, which is alright... i got no prob with that... i aint a veggie person anyway.. who needs yucky green stuff =P

 
At 12:17 PM, Anonymous Gopi said...

My folks go to a big Chinese store near Boston. The only things that they get from our neighborhood Indian store (which, incidentally, is neat and clean; they better be as they are a combined Indian grocery and American convenience store) are the occasional DVD and Parathas.

 
At 4:23 PM, Anonymous Prakash said...

Cleveland status:

We frequent a couple grocery stores. There are other grocery stores in the area. Haven't had a need to go elsewhere.

The one close by is pretty clean, and the Punjabi owners are friendly. If the guy is there, he'll break the coconuts because my wife is never sure if they are good.

The other one we frequent is ~20-25 mins drive. Again, pretty clean, and good service. And Tamil DVDs will get there eventually. Since I am a picky movie watcher, we'll go there once a month or so.

When I used to live in the Bay area, Coconut Hill was closest and cleanest. So that's the one I went to most often.

 
At 4:54 PM, Blogger Balaji said...

vijay, forgot to ask u in the last comment. what is quixtar? have never been approached by anyone hawking that...


vijayr, welcome. sure looks like vijay's the most popular name on bbthots :-)
oh yeah, i forgot to mention the expired items :)
and the locals mending their ways after the arrival of the chinese market echoes my sentiments on competition.

???, looks like lots people r shopping in chinese stores. i think i've been in one but the smell put me off (i'm veggie). wonder if all of them r like that...

merino, looks like u're one of the lucky ones :) i think the problem with namaste plaza too was that we went at the wrong time when there was nothing fresh. but just explaining that in instead of the rude answer would've made the service so much better.

gopi, so u guys get all our podis and paruppus and stuff at chinese stores?!

prakash, yes coconut hill is still neat and clean. but quite a small selection of vegetables and quite a bit more expensive than the other stores.

 
At 6:35 PM, Blogger gethky said...

Hope you don't mind that I copied your post in my "Sampler" blog where I have collected other great works from such serious, high-minded bloggers as yourself.

 
At 7:06 PM, Anonymous Sandya said...

Well, the most clean, best customer service, neatly stacked Indian store, huh?!.. Well, the closest to that is indeed Coconut Hill in Newark, CA (which maybe really far for you, Balaji!).. For every $15 you spend on groceries, you get a dollar off on video rentals (the monthly rental fee is $10)..

Pretty good deal, huh!..

The veggies are a lot fresher than Kumud (which is about 20 yards from CH in Newark, CA)...

They revamped the whole store recently and it is clean as ever (don't know why they overlooked the restroom though! :-(..

The customer service is impeccable.. they actually tell where things are and walk to the aisle, pick it out and give it to you!.. All the posters are restricted to a very tiny board and that's it.. no posters on the glass outside the store or anywhere else!..

Indian store heaven!

 
At 3:38 AM, Anonymous ruchi said...

Reminds me of the novel - "A Town Like Alice " by Nevil Shute ...... I don't live in the US myself, but sounds like setting up a well-run Indian store would be a lucrative idea !! Of course, I know it is not that simple, but why don't u think abt it ?

"A Town Like Alice" : The English protaganist falls in love with an Australian cowboy who lives in the deep outback. The nearest 'town' is a collection of a few houses; no stores, no hospitals or other conveniences whatsoever. Coming from London, she is concerned that she may get bored here in the course of time , and that might tell on her marraige. So before actually tying the knot, she sets out to build up the town into something more attractive.

... Good Read , by the way !

 
At 7:28 AM, Anonymous vijay said...

Balaji, Amway got a bad rep. I heard some of the same people are behind quixtar. They just changed the name.Its the same concept
http://www.quixtar.com

Stay away from Amway!! :-)

 
At 12:56 PM, Blogger Balaji said...

gethky, thanx!

sandya, havent been to the newark one. quite far as u mentioned. but i do see most of those features u mention in the sunnyvale branch too. clean and well-organized and a helpful staff.

ruchi, would probably be lucrative once u get word of mouth going. but lot of factors in play. i've personally seen 2 indian stores close shop within a couple of months of opening. and 1 of them seemed to have everything going for it - good location(same complex as a popular indian rental store), clean, helpful staff, etc.) just didnt click i think...

vijay, sure looks the same from the website. staying far away... once bitten always shy :-)

 
At 11:27 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

How about ordering through namaste.com or indiaplaza.com? Seriously thinking about it....

 
At 11:37 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Coconut Hill is definitely a good place for indian groceries. India Cash & Carry reminds you very much of India...the long queue i mean...there was 1 India grocery outlet on lawrence exp which was ok but has been closed down for a while...the convenience of coconut hill is that u can buy grocery as well as pick up new indian movies...a friend of mine moved from the bay area to the east and has already started cribbing about not getting indian food...that way we are pretty lucky my friend.....QUIXTAR??? got pulled into that one by a good friend who I realise now was never a friend...got out within 2 months..

 
At 4:58 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

GOTO BHARAT BAZAR IN SUNNYVALE!! THEY HAVE ON OPENDED A NEW STORE ON THE CORNER OR LAWRENCE EXP. AND REED. FINALLY, AN INDIAN STORE THAT IS A SAFEWAY OR ALBERTSONS. YOU HAVE TOO SEE THIS PLACE.

 
At 12:25 PM, Blogger Mushtandaa said...

(Sorry about the bad link in my last post)

About genies and Desi Grocery stores in Rhode Island and Massachusetts…

http://desigrocery.blogspot.com/2006/01/wishful-thinking-in-ocean-state.html

 
At 9:54 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Shop online today. Forget driving to the mall when you can just click the mouse and order from your favorite store. No traffic to deal with

 
At 6:29 PM, Anonymous danny, said...

Naste PLAZA in Fremont, Very BAD, people there Yelling at customers and they are very Rude.

I really did not under stand what to do,

It is about paying through credit card and requested them to accept credit card becuase it is lower than 10$, sinc it is very urgent for me.

Boys there were very rude, and said drop the things and go back. The situation was very bad, and they are shouting.

We are playing monery and getting such a horrible service, I know they really dont care. very bad....

 
At 6:30 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

NAMASTE PLAZA.FREMONT..BAD EXPERIENCE

Namaste PLAZA in Fremont, Very BAD, people there Yelling at customers and they are very Rude.

I really did not under stand what to do,

It is about paying through credit card and requested them to accept credit card becuase it is lower than 10$, sinc it is very urgent for me.

Boys there were very rude, and said drop the things and go back. The situation was very bad, and they are shouting.

We are playing monery and getting such a horrible service, I know they really dont care. very bad....

6:29 PM

 
At 3:43 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Bazar @ Vallejo, CA.

After reading thru the account on Namaste plaza, i cannot stop myself from talking about this little indian grocery in my city. It is well maintained and clean. Not to mention, this is the only indian grocery within a circumference of about 20mi. Here comes the bad part...The store makes sure it carries a lot expired goods, be it canned or jarred or packaged groceries. You buy lentils and you get some live creatures (bugs) free. I (and others here) am seriously thinking of complaining about the store, but do not know how to go about it.

 
At 2:54 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

hehe ... loved th equixtar stuff .... these days I trying having some fun with the Quixtar reps ... http://www.cricbay.com/article.asp?ID=35 is another interesting article

 
At 11:54 PM, Anonymous Nancy said...

Hey all,

Ever been to Neelkamal !! was one of the good shop in Sunnyvale quite some time back.. Now under new management (last one year) Excellent !! Clean !! Good customer support, ofcours !! free DVD rental with grocesary purchase...

Quality shopping with clean visit Wolfe India Bazar in Sunnyvale (old SF Road). btw, that is mallu/tamil shop.

Iam happy to see drumstick, bananaleaf and all south indian vegis.. great....

 
At 11:32 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Lots said on this forum. In general I agree that most Indian grocery stores have a problem. I agree 100% with the guys that love Coconut Hill. Both the Sunnyvale and the Fremont locations are really good. People are nice and friendly and the quality of stuff is good (according to my wife).

I love the Namaste Plaza in Belmont. Cash and Carry in Foster City is not bad but the owner is typical Indian guy who seems to think smiling makes you a target for others to take advantage of you!!! He has a glum face. I love Namaste Plaza because of the owner. Nice guy and is happy running that store.

 
At 5:12 PM, Blogger Ramesh said...

Bottom Line, If they can make lots of money they should improve the stores conditions also;

That is why Americans do not come to these stores.

 
At 2:30 AM, Anonymous vinod said...

There are some indians never goto
indian store at all; Also indians
can't maintain like american stores
in cleanliness & sanitation because
athu udanpirappu...abcd

 
At 11:18 AM, Blogger BK said...

I am looking to start a business and one idea/dream is to open Indian grocery store that will be clean, organized (no boxes and items in the door for sure, as i hate this myself)and superior customer service. PLUS pass healty natural produt knowledge to people (chemical free living).

BIG QUESTION I HAVE IS: Will people pay the price for good custoemr service, quality, selection and many other things I have in mind? As I experiance most indians prefer lower price over quality and this may be the reason for no improvement in indian grocery stores?

 
At 2:52 PM, Blogger Kay said...

Balaji, there is a new Indian grocery store in Cupertino, Kumud groceries. Have you tried it? Apart from it's atrocious spellings for different aisles :-), the stuff is actually good and quite fresh in fact. They have a great collection of tamil DVDs. Pretty much all the latest stuff.

Kay

 
At 3:15 PM, Blogger Balaji said...

kay, welcome! yes, its our regular indian store now and we go there every week. fresh vegetables and new DVDs - can't go wrong! though, after shopping last weekend at Kumud in Sunnyvale, my wife mentioned that the Cupertino store was probably quite a bit more expensive :)

 
At 4:32 PM, Blogger Kay said...

Balaji,

I think you are the person whom I think you are.. Did you live in latham Street circa 99? I used to live right opposite! Krithika and Giri!! Any bells ringing?

 
At 3:15 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

hi,
i am trying to get in touch with the guy/gal who talked about bazaar@vallejo. W eare planning to move to vallejo and I woul dlike to know about the Indian community there.so please if you see this mail me. lvnyb@yahoo.com.

 
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Keep It up doing good job : I like to read all your blogs every day.

 
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