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Immigrants Expand Tastes of Mainstream America

March 2007
Immigrants Expand Tastes of Mainstream America

Jayanti Patel was 8 when his family immigrated from Mumbai. His parents, who had been doctors, began selling home-cooked food from the trunk of their car. Jayanti pitched in, making chapatis, parathas, and naan by hand. Today Mr. Patel, 32, runs a business with 16 employees, producing 10 million flatbreads a year in New York. But the burst of Indian immigration to the city has slowed; customers are spreading through the suburbs, and competition for them is fierce. Now, he says, his eye is on a vast, untapped market: the rest of the country. In the long run, "you're going to have Indian flatbreads in every store," predicted Patel, whose innovations include "toaster-friendly" versions and an experimental Web site. "But I don't have the connections. I don't know the people who can advise how to take us to the next level."

As the flow of immigrants to small-town America outpaces the growth of ethnic centers in large cities, many foreign-born entrepreneurs are facing an unfamiliar crossroads. In the city, rising rents and density hamper growth, while ethnic enclaves in the suburbs generate competitors. Yet in other places, opportunity beckons, as immigrants expand the tastes of mainstream America.

Whether these businesses exploit the chances to break out or succumb to the new perils, the city's economy will feel the effects. "Immigrants have been the entrepreneurial spark plugs of cities," said J. Bowles, the director of the Center for an Urban Future, a nonprofit research organization that studied the dynamics of immigrant businesses that turned decaying neighborhoods into vibrant commercial hubs in recent decades. A report by the center highlights both the potential and the challenge for cities full of immigrant entrepreneurs, who often face language barriers and problems connecting with mainstream agencies that help businesses grow.

In Los Angeles, 22 of the 100 fastest-growing companies in 2005 were created by first-generation immigrants. In Houston, a telecommunications company started by a Pakistani man topped the 2006 list of the city's most successful small businesses. But even in those cities, the report contends that immigrant entrepreneurs have been overlooked in long-term strategies for economic development.

Some are doing just fine anyway. Rajbhog Foods, which started as a mom-and-pop Indian sweets shop in Jackson Heights, seem to be on the edge of a similar breakthrough, even as they struggle with rising costs and shifting immigration patterns. Sachin Mody, the chief executive and son of the founders, said the company had about 70 employees and three plants and sold its vegetarian products to stores in 41 states and Canada. Its catering operation handles Indian weddings and conventions for as many as 10,000. But six years ago, in recognition of a changing market, it began opening franchise stores in places like Jersey City and Hicksville, on Long Island, where Indians have settled in large numbers.

At a time when cities woo biotechnology firms and sports arenas to jump-start local economies, the economic potential of immigrant entrepreneurs has remained largely underdeveloped, says the Center for an Urban Future. Though there are no precise figures to measure their economic contributions, the report said, these businesses create jobs in good times and bad. They offset the cyclical slumps of more high-profile sectors like finance in New York or energy in Houston. And they have created ethnic markets that draw shoppers into the city, balancing the loss of retail trade to the suburbs. The Center calls on public, private and nonprofit agencies to do more to connect immigrant entrepreneurs to the expertise available, to ensure they thrive and thus continue contributing to their local communities.

--Sadia Subhani

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