The grocery store to visit at 3 am

The new Apna Bazar store in Pleasanton, California is the 14th in the business

 

Ritu Jha

 

An Indian store that’s open 24/7 may seem over the top. But Ravinder Singh, owner of the new Apna Bazar- Farmer’s Market, opening in Pleasanton, California, says he has tested the model for 15 years and is quite confident it will work.

In July, Singh opened a 10,000 sq. feet grocery store in Sunnyvale, where there is no shortage of Indian Americans, “There is no hassle about when to shop. Nurses working the night shift at Kaiser Hospital in Santa Clara and other hospitals nearby are so pleased,” he said. Then he added with a smile: “So am I.”

People shopping at Apna Bazar in Sunnyvale, Calif.

Singh remembers his wife harrying him to buy milk and groceries while on his way back from work. So he thought of having a store that stayed open during the quiet hours, and tried it out in Jackson Heights, New York, in 1995.

“People laughed at us,” Singh said. “They thought it wouldn’t work. Indeed, the first night sales were only for $33. Today, the same store’s sales are about $10,000 each night.” He considered that and added, “Which is a pretty significant number.”

There was no need to rush back home and there would be no crowds and long lines to navigate. Today, there are 14 Apna Bazars across America.

Singh said it was lucky that he did not try out what he was considering earlier – a gas station business. Now he feels gas stations will fade away in a decade or two.

When expanding his business, Singh did not let his early success make him overconfident.

He went on a road trip to do some market research in several cities across the US and Canada, in each making his first stops at an Indian grocery and an Indian restaurant.

It took him four-and-a-half years until last year he turned up in Sunnyvale, a city that was home to the human engines that drove Silicon Valley, many of them South Asian. Singh said just in El Camino, Sunnyvale, he found more than 127 desi restaurants in one-mile radius.

“We were looking for a market where we can open 12 to 15 stores within a 50-mile radius,” said Singh. He clearly had hit the jackpot in the Bay Area.

Singh did not feel every store needed to be large; the compromise option with fewer options was called Apna Bazar Express. He plans to open one in Walnut Creek and another in Danville, markets where immigrants are less represented.

The second Sunnyvale store is  10,000 plus square feet, while the one in Pleasanton, once a Trader Joe’s, pushes that to 11, 500 square feet. Bigger stores could open in Cupertino, Fremont and Ardenwood, where there is a huge immigrant market.

Singh claims his products are cheaper than in other grocery stores, and were even more economical than what one could find at Costco. He points out to a 4 lb pack of lentils for $2:99.

“We are the second-largest [chain of Indian stores] in the US,” he said. Patel Brothers is the largest, running 54 stores in the US, including one in Santa Clara, though the majority are in the Midwest and on the East Coast.

He says Costco cannot address the South Asian’s needs.

“We carry 139 different varieties of spices. 49 different kinds of oil and organic products,” he pointed out.

Singh said Silicon Valley customers are very different from those on the East Coast.

“We know East Coast customers. Here we are in a learning process,” he said, while asserting that the only competition his new store had come from his older one in Sunnyvale.

Along with 240 varieties of fruits and vegetables, fish imported from Kerala, 39 brands of rice, specialty flour from England and exotic Rasmalai and Sonpadri ice creams from India, it also stocks some standard grocery staples as napkins and paper towels, organic food and a variety of oils.

Singh explains that odd wrinkle.

“Whatever Doctor Oz talks on television show about herbal products, the next morning customers come asking for it,” he said, referring to the television host best known for peddling alternative medicine unsupported by scientific evidence.

Singh said he wants to replicate in his new store what he has in his Jackson Heights location, where 52 percent of the customers are not South Asian, and get customers from outside the community.

“It will be the next-door neighborhood market,” Singh said. Given its size, it could pass for the neighborhood mall.

 

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