Dining News

Normally Vibrant During Diwali, Chicago’s South Asian Hub on Devon Avenue Faces Peril

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.

Patel Brothers will close on Saturday, November 13 for a remodel.
Barry Brecheisen/Eater Chicago

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

Parts of Devon Avenue are known as “Gandhi Marg.”

A mural painted on the side of Sukhadia’s

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

Some of the beautification attempts along Devon

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 “” 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’s legacy

A family enjoys a meal on Devon.

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.

Restaurants along Devon Avenue don’t have much room for patio dining.

Tiffin opened in 1994 along Devon.

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.”

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Joe Biden’s Tax Plan Will Put The Middle Class In Peril (VIDEO)

Home Depot co-founder Ken Langone was on the FOX Business Network this week to discuss the election, specifically Joe Biden’s tax plan.

Biden keeps claiming he is only going to tax the rich, in an obvious effort to appeal to the Bernie Sanders wing of the Democrat party, but the truth is that his plan will impact the middle class negatively.

Langone explained how.

From FOX Business:

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Joe Biden’s tax plan will put middle class in ‘peril,’ Home Depot’s Langone says

Home Depot co-founder Ken Langone blasted Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden’s tax plan on Wednesday, saying that “the middle class will be in peril.”

Langone told “Mornings with Maria” on Wednesday that the middle class will feel the effects of Biden’s tax plan even though the former vice president has said the wealthy should pay more in taxes, and that the tax code should be more progressive and equitable. That includes eliminating loopholes that favor the rich and large corporations.

“I don’t know if there’s any of us that have done well that will have a problem with paying more taxes, but it’s a ruse to think that hitting us and us alone is going to get the job done,” Langone said.

“It won’t and the middle class will be in peril and when you take money out of the hands of the middle class, you do a dramatic impact negatively on the economy.”

“The middle class will not be exempt,” he added. “Tragically, it will punish them. It isn’t going to punish us.”

Watch the video below:

Langone makes some excellent points here but one really stands out.

Why would you raise any taxes when we’re still trying to recover from the hit the economy took under the pandemic?

We should be looking at tax cuts, not increases.


Cross posted from American Lookout.

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Children and the virus: As schools reopen, much remains unknown about the risk to kids and the peril they pose to others

Amanda Seghetti, a mom in the area, said her parent Facebook group lit up when the pictures of the seniors were posted. Some people thought the images were cute. Others freaked out. Seghetti was in the latter constituency.

“It’s like they think they are immune and are in denial about everything,” Seghetti said.

Pictures of packed school hallways in Georgia and news of positive tests on the first day of classes in Indiana and Mississippi sparked the latest fraught discussions over the risk the coronavirus presents to children — and what’s lost by keeping them home from school. Friday brought reports of more infections among Georgia students, with dozens forced into quarantine in Cherokee County, among other places.

For months, parents and teachers, epidemiologists and politicians have chimed in with their views on the many still-unanswered questions about the extent to which the virus is a threat to children — and the extent to which they can fuel its spread.

A report from leading pediatric health groups found that more than 97,000 U.S. children tested positive for the coronavirus in the last two weeks of July, more than a quarter of the total number of children diagnosed nationwide since March. As of July 30, there were 338,982 cases reported in children since the dawn of the pandemic, according to data from the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Children’s Hospital Association.

President Trump has repeatedly maintained the virus poses little threat to children.

“The fact is they are virtually immune from this problem,” Trump said Wednesday in an interview with Axios.

Eight months after the World Health Organization received the first report of a “pneumonia of unknown cause” in China, much remains uncertain about the coronavirus and children.

Doctors are more confident that most children exposed to the virus are unlikely to have serious illness, a sentiment backed by a report published Friday by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that concluded children are far less likely to be hospitalized with covid-19, the illness caused by the virus, than adults. But when children do fall seriously sick, the burden of illness is borne disproportionately: That same CDC report concluded that Hispanic children are approximately eight times more likely and Black children five times more likely to be hospitalized with covid-19 than their White peers.

Early studies on children and the virus were small and conflicting. But accumulating evidence suggests the coronavirus may affect younger children differently than older ones.

For example, doctors say the multisystem inflammatory syndrome linked to the virus known as MIS-C — that has appeared in a small number of children weeks after infection presents differently in younger children than in teens and young adults. Infants and preschoolers who have been diagnosed with the syndrome have symptoms mirroring Kawasaki, a disease of unknown cause that inflames blood vessels. In the older group, the consequences appear more severe, with doctors describing it more like a shock syndrome that has led to heart failure and even death.

One paper published in July in the journal JAMA Pediatrics found that children younger than 5 with mild to moderate cases of covid-19 had much higher levels of virus in their noses than older children and adults — suggesting they could be more infectious. That study, conducted by doctors at the Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago, used data from 145 children tested at drive-through sites in that region.

A study out of South Korea examining household transmission also found age-based differences in children. Puzzlingly, it seemed to reach an opposite conclusion about transmission than the Chicago researchers did. Children under age 10 did not appear to pass on the virus readily, while those between 10 and 19 appeared to transmit the virus almost as much as adults did.

Max Lau, an epidemiologist at Emory University tracking superspreader events in the state in collaboration with the Georgia Department of Public Health, said two striking trends have emerged even as work continues on an analysis of recent data.

Disease detectives have found relatively few infections among young children even after the state loosened its coronavirus-related shutdown. Researchers elsewhere have noted there hasn’t been a clear, documented case of a young child triggering an outbreak. In contrast, cases spiked among 15- to 25-year-olds, suggesting they may be driving the spread of the virus.

“When the shelter-in-place lifted, they perceived that they could go back to normal life and that’s what I observed,” Lau said.

In May, Jerusalem’s Gymnasia Ha’ivrit high school was the center of a major outbreak that public health officials said seeded transmission to other neighborhoods. In June, an overnight YMCA camp in Georgia was forced to close after 260 of 597 children and staff members tested positive for the virus — an event some experts heralded as a parable for what can happen when young people are allowed to gather without being attentive to wearing masks or maintaining physical distance. At that camp, the first to come down with symptoms and be sent home was a teenage counselor.

Other gatherings among teens have led to smaller outbreaks. In New Jersey, it was a party at a country club that left at least 20 teens infected. In Michigan, health officials said more than 100 teens in three counties have tested positive since mid-July following graduations and other parties.

Sadiya S. Khan, an assistant professor of cardiology and preventive medicine at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine, said social practices, rather than biology, may explain why teens and young adults appear to be spreading infection.

“They are more likely to be out and about. They are more likely to not have experienced any consequences,” Khan said. “There has been a lot of attention to the fact that people who are older have a worse course and if you’re young, it doesn’t feel as dangerous, so they might think, ‘Why be as careful?’ ”

Khan said she worries schools that don’t enforce mask-wearing and social distancing can be laboratories for superspreader events rippling out to the broader community.

Medical history tells us that children’s role in infectious diseases is not always what we first assume. In 1960, in response to significant deaths among the elderly during the 1957-1958 influenza pandemic, the surgeon general recommended flu vaccines for people 65 and older. It wasn’t until decades later that studies showed that mortality among older people could be reduced by vaccinating the young. In 2002, the CDC recommended flu shots for infants and in 2008 expanded that to school-age children.

With the coronavirus pandemic, like any disease outbreak, research takes time, and experts say decisions being made about reopening schools are necessarily being made without the full picture of the risk the virus poses to children.

For example, the CDC’s study of that Georgia YMCA camp did not include detailed tracing of how cases spread among campgoers. Did one teenage counselor spread the virus to the whole camp? Did that counselor infect a few younger children, who in turn infected other younger children?

Similarly, that study did not document what happened to families of the infected when the children returned home. Did they bring the virus back to their families, thereby dispelling the notion that children do not transmit the virus to adults? Or, if infections did spread, was it simply the result of high viral prevalence in Georgia, and not the result of contact with a campgoer?

As the case of the Georgia camp illustrates, measuring the risk younger children face in returning to school continues to be an inexact art. Parents are left with the agonizing and anxiety-riddled task of evaluating that potential peril for themselves. And they must weigh the potential health risks of the virus against the educational, social, developmental and economic consequences of children remaining out of the classroom.

Teachers unions from Florida to Ohio have protested plans to fully reopen schools, arguing that even if a few months of data suggests children are not likely to suffer severe outcomes from the virus, they could still pass it to vulnerable adults.

On Aug. 2 — hours before the first day of school — the principal of North Paulding High School near Atlanta sent a letter to parents informing them of coronavirus infections on the football team. Video on the Facebook page for the team’s parent-run booster club showed members of the team, with no masks or distance between them, lifting in a weight room as part of a fundraising event a week earlier.

Within days, the school burst into the national spotlight, and the issue spawned heated arguments in a local Facebook group called “What’s Happening Paulding,” with parents occasionally descending into name-calling and expletive-laced tirades as they argued over whether the pictures should warrant concern. Sunday night, North Paulding High sent a letter to parents announcing the school would be closed to in-person learning for at least two days because of nine cases of the coronavirus.

John Cochran, the father of a ninth-grader and middle-schooler in the Georgia school system, said in an interview he felt it wasn’t safe for his children to attend school in person, in part because multiple adults in their family are immunocompromised.

“That was one thing we stressed to the kids — they’ve got too many adults that they are regularly in contact with who could be in bad shape if they pick this up from them,” Cochran said. “Personally, I didn’t want that on my kids’ conscience that they went to school and got their mother, stepdad, dad or grandparents sick.”

In Georgia’s Cherokee County, where the 80 students gathered for that unmasked photo, Seghetti said she knows she’s in the minority in deciding to keep her 11-year-old son, Kaiden, home from school.

Seghetti said after seeing photos shared by parents from inside schools and learning that two elementary campuses in the district already had reported coronavirus cases — a second-grader Tuesday and a first-grader Wednesday — she is confident she made the right decision. Cherokee County schools spokeswoman Barbara P. Jacoby said the schools have implemented changes to try to keep students safe, including staggering bell times to avoid hall crowding and providing students with two masks each they can wear if they wish.

Karin Jessop’s two children, ages 12 and 13, attended that YMCA day camp at Lake Burton where the residential camp outbreak unfolded. Her children, who were at the camp for four weeks but came home each night, did not get infected; the outbreak was among those who stayed overnight, another reminder of the unpredictability of the spread.

Jessop, a technology company executive, said after news of the outbreak broke, “a lot of moms were getting stressed out about making the wrong decision and worried what people will think.”

“At the end of the day, it’s your family,” she said, adding she believes staying home affects her children’s development, which makes the camp experience worth the risk.

“Many of these kids have been home since March, and if you have super gregarious, extroverted kids, they are used to and need that interaction.”

Janes and Cha reported from Washington.

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