Sukhumvit is peppered with indispensible little shops that sell us our masalas, dals, and other Indian sundries. Masala drops by three such Indian grocery stores around the Asoke area to find out a bit more about the history, family life, and entrepreneurial spirit of the people who run them.
A Slice of Bharat
Almost always on his phone with a mouthful of tobacco, Navin Sirinatwong is the Hindispeaking moustachioed gentleman who sits behind the cash register of Bharat Mini Mart. His two-aisle store in front of Siam Mansion apartment building on Sukhumvit Soi 12 may seem like just a snack shop, but Bharat Mini Mart is actually stocked with the essentials of every Indian kitchen—from your favourite childhood biscuits to dal, and even fresh paneer.
Navin’s grandfather emigrated from Gorakhpur to try to set up a business in Thailand. Born and raised in Thailand, Navin’s father was the manager of Siam Mansion in Soi 12 until he passed away last year. Navin, who took up his father’s post and is also a part-time insurance agent for AIA, started the store by chance when an unfortunate business venture left him with thousands of baht worth of groceries. Even though he knew nothing of this line of work, Navin was able to navigate through the hard times, and eventually establish a sustainable business. Six years on, the business owner is pleased with his decision to start this grocery shop. His client base among Indians and Thais in the area, along with customers from the Ramada Hotel, have helped him break even and pay back the loans he had initially taken.
During the interview, Navin was seated beside his wife and his 10 year-old son, who are visiting from Gorakhpur. His wife and their three children live in India and visit once a year. Here, he shares stories of his rough and- tumble beginning, how he keeps up with supermarkets, and the fast-changing street he lives on. —REENA KARIM
You already had a full-time job. What got you into the grocery business?
While I was working as the assistant manager of Sriratana Mansion, I met with some people who had come from Indore to start a wholesale grocery business. I got involved because they asked me to help with marketing. But after seven months, they ran into some problems and were forced to go back to India. Since they were leaving, they offered to sell the remaining products to me. I bought them and continued wholesaling. Once I started doing that full time, I left my job at the building.
From having a full-time job to running your own business, what was the transition like?
When I had my job, there was no burden, and the income was really good. When I got into the grocery business, I spent a lot of money buying all the products. Later, I found that many of the items weren’t of good quality, and while in storage, some got destroyed. So I sold whatever I could salvage. Later, I ordered a container full of groceries from India. But when I received it, I realised that they had mixed up the orders. But I managed to sell those and it took me over a year. I had to hire two people to help out and even got a storage facility. After a while, it added up to a hefty amount, and I was running at a loss. Then later, I decided that I should just take the remaining products and start a small grocery store.
Did you consider closing down the business?
Initially, it was tough because I lost a lot of money. I went through a lot of hardships. At one point, I wanted to put an end to it, but then I thought that if I were to close up, I would never recover the money I had lost. Also, since I was in this line, I might as well go through with it.
How did you set up the store?
I spoke to my father, and we decided to open it because at that time, there were many Indian families here. My father who was then the manager of Siam Mansion— spoke to the owner of the building to let us rent out the small space in the parking lot. The owner agreed. I built the store from the ground up and opened it in 2007.
Why did you choose this location?
There are no Indian stores here, and that was one of the deciding factors. Also, after my father’s death last year, I took over his job. Now my cousin Ramesh helps me out by managing the store during the day, and I take over after 6pm. So having the shop nearby helps me do both.
With supermarkets now stocking up on Indian groceries, how do you keep up with competition?
Stores like Tops or Robinsons also sell Indian products, but they charge a lot. There is a considerable price difference in products. I research by going to these places and seeing how much they charge for similar items that I sell in my shop. This helps me understand the price markup for these products. But in any case, I don’t make more than 20 percent profit per item.
Do you import from India?
I don’t import anything from India because many Indian companies are already based here. Suppliers such as Rajdhani and Shakti Bhog import from India, and Hukumchand manufacture their own products, so I buy from them directly.
Are there any benefits of running a small store in a soi?
Before my store, the Indians had to go to the main road to buy things or go to Pahurat or Asoke market to buy monthly provisions. But that’s so far and my place is easier for them to just drop by. The biggest advantage of having a small business close to where I live is that in case Ramesh doesn’t show up, I can sit and manage the store without compromising on my day job.
How has the neighbourhood changed over the years?
There have been a few changes here in this soi since I first set up shop six years ago. Earlier, soi 12 was a residential area. There were mostly Indian families here, with the exception of a few Thais. Over the years, some of the Indian families have moved out of soi 12 and dispersed into other neighbourhoods in Bangkok. For instance, one family used to live here, and now they have moved to Ekamai. But they still order their monthly groceries from me, so I go all the way to soi 71 to deliver. Now, after Ramada Hotel, the soi has become more commercialised. I hear that they will be building another hotel nearby, too.
Published in Masala magazine, July 2013
For photos please click here Aap ki Dukaan