Thousands of restaurants in gas stations and truck stops are owned by immigrants selling the kinds of comfort foods they wish they could find outside their own homes
My mother claims that my father’s current favorite restaurant is called Taste of India, somewhere in the vague vicinity of the San Francisco Bay Area. It’s apparently located in the back of a gas station, and if you’d like to embark on an arguably impossible Carmen Sandiego-style chase, look no further.
If you Google “Taste of India gas station restaurant,” you’ll be met with millions of results. There is a Taste of India restaurant in a truck stop in Marshall, Texas; there’s another in a gas station in San Jon, New Mexico; there’s yet another in Clinton, Mississippi; and a My Taste of India in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. There are dozens of Yelp reviews of customers saying they didn’t realize their lunch would be served in the back of a Chevron, and TripAdvisor comments imploring future customers not to be dissuaded by the fact that they would be eating food made in the same place they would be fueling up their tank. But my father’s specific Taste of India that I sought out to find — my “Rosebud,” my riddle of the Sphinx — remained a mystery.
If you really start looking, you’ll find thousands of restaurants in gas stations and truck stops tucked away in every state and city. More often than not, they’re owned by immigrants selling Styrofoam bowls of hot sarson ka saag and shami kebabs — the kinds of comfort foods they wish they could find outside their own homes. As an immigrant kid growing up in suburban America, my childhood was filled with nondescript Indian restaurants off the interstate, with a full buffet lunch right up against a 7-Eleven. And if it’s not a Taste of India, you’ll find a Momo Spot inside a Texaco in Irving, Texas, or a Haeorum Foods Korean BBQ sandwiched between a dry cleaner and a pet groomer in an Ocala, Florida, Sunoco gas station food mart. For decades, gas stations have been serving up Korean tteokbokki, and Tibeten sha phaley, and Punjabi tandoori chicken, in the places and spaces most people wouldn’t think to look twice. For immigrant families like my own, you best believe, we’ve known.
In 2006, then-Senator and presidential candidate Joe Biden came under fire for saying, “You cannot go to a 7-Eleven or a Dunkin’ Donuts unless you have a slight Indian accent.”
What he should have said, of course, is that immigrants are this country’s greatest entrepreneurial force. They start new businesses at nearly twice the rate of native-born Americans, and Asian- and Latino-owned businesses alone generate over a trillion dollars in revenue every year. According to the Fiscal Policy Institute, using 2013 Census data, immigrants in the United States make up 61 percent of all gas station owners and 38 percent of all restaurant owners.
This domination of the gas station industry didn’t happen by accident. It wasn’t until 1965, at the height of the Civil Rights movement, when race-based immigration quotas in America, which dated back to the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, were abolished with the Hart-Celler Act. Instead, it placed quotas on immigrants from the Western Hemisphere and instituted a preferential system that prioritized immigrants of the professional class and those with specialized skills.
In the decades that followed, family reunification programs would welcome more immigrants: Between 1980 and 1988, Asian American immigration increased by an incredible 70 percent. For those from Mexico and other Latin American countries, however, the Hart-Celler Act even further restricted avenues of immigration, continuing a pattern that started in 1965 with the phasing out of the Mexican Farm Labor Program (known as the Bracero Program). At one point in the mid-20th-century, the program, which granted temporary guestworker visas, allowed for nearly half a million migrants, predominantly from Mexico, to circulate in and out of the United States every year; often, they worked under abusive conditions. Hart-Celler’s immigration caps also followed the largest mass deportation in American history: In 1954, more than one million people, mostly Mexican, were deported using aggressive, military-style tactics.
Many immigrants would arrive without documentation, making finding employment difficult. And even new immigrants with legal paperwork faced a culture that often would not acknowledge their prior qualifications or work experience. “A lot of people who came over faced racism and wouldn’t necessarily find employment,” says Dr. Anita Mannur, an associate professor of Asian American studies at Miami University. So, instead of trying to join a workforce that discriminated against them, many immigrants chose instead to start their own business. “Self-employment allows you to control a lot of that,” says Mannur. “A lot of them didn’t speak English well, and with a convenience store, there isn’t a huge requirement to be as proficient in English. … That question of self-employment is a key one, because it allows them to work without having to deal with the microaggressions that would come along with working for someone else.”
Many of these newcomers found themselves drawn to businesses like gas stations and convenience stores, which required relatively little start-up capital, and came with an already existing clientele and business model. Many were also willing to move to cities that others weren’t, which helped reduce their cost of living, and many ran their stores as family businesses, which kept down their operating costs.
Gurnam Singh, or “Gama,” as he’s known among family and friends, found his way to the United States in the 1980s. He worked as a farmer in Punjab, but like so many others at the time, his family was losing opportunities in India. His father left for New York and started working in the gas station business alongside his uncle in 1979. Ten years later, Singh followed, joining the family business in the Bronx.
In 2007, Singh bought a truck stop after friends tipped him off to one that was up for auction across the country. So, along with his wife, his kids, his mother, and his father, Singh found himself leaving New York City for a new life in Burns, Wyoming, population: 318.
From the start, he knew he wanted to be serving food at his newly minted Antelope Truck Stop. He began selling slow-cooked Punjabi foods, like chicken curry, dal makhani, and saag — dishes that can take upward of five hours to prepare — alongside American roadside classics, like scrambled eggs and hamburgers. “Sometimes people ask us, how come you would come from India to live in Wyoming?” says Singh. “And it’s work business. If we can find a better life here, a better education, it’s no big deal.”
Punjabi-owned “dhabas” — i.e., truck stops serving Punjabi food along service routes — now dot the American landscape. In India, dhabas are 24-hour joints, similarly located off of highways, right next to gas stations. They serve the ultimate comfort food — everything creamy, greasy, and covered in ghee. It’s a small indulgence during a long trip, and a chance to meet with other travelers.
In the U.S., these dhabas provide something else — a moment of familiarity and community in a profession that can otherwise be isolating. And for truck stop owners, like Singh, it’s a connection with the Punjabi community, even if it’s one that ebbs and flows. The town of Burns boasts a population that is over 99 percent white. Singh and his family may as well be the only Indians in the area; that is to say, Burns is not the most obvious place to start a traditional Punjabi restaurant. But, at Antelope, the food isn’t aimed toward the locals. It’s mainly for the Punjabi truck drivers looking to tear into some hot chapatis while on the road.
“You need a lot of preparation [to make Punjabi food],” Singh says. “You have to prepare everything earlier, make it quality, and then serve it when the customer wants it.” Early for Antelope Truck Stop means opening the kitchen at 5 a.m. and closing at 8 p.m.
And work never stops. Antelope is a true family business — along with his wife, his father, and his mother, Singh cooks all the food, operates the truck stop, and runs the attached convenience and liquor stores. While I spoke to him over the phone, he kept up the interview while continuing to interface with customers. Anecdotes would be intercut with, “$14.59, cash or credit?” While many restaurants and gas stations saw business decline during the pandemic year, Singh says work has been as busy as ever. “The one thing that’s still moving is transportation and truck stops,” says Singh. “We’re doing pretty good because people need it.”
Like Singh, sisters Angelina and Made San Juan Rizo know what it takes to run a true family business. Food has been a major part of their family since they can remember: They worked at their grandmother’s restaurant in Mexico as kids, learning how to cook perfect tamales, pozole, and tortas.
When they moved to the United States in 2000, the sisters found themselves in Franklin, Tennessee, a town guided by the same God-fearing morality they were raised with back home. Fourteen years later, wanting to start their own restaurant, the sisters bought a gas station convenience store and the Old Oak was born, doling out their grandmother’s original recipes. While truck stops, like Singh’s, are able to rely on a built-in customer base of truckers, Angelina and Made’s station appeals mostly to locals, many of whom had very little familiarity with Mexican food when it opened in 2014.
“We did have challenges [at the beginning,]” says Angelina. “We wasted a lot of food because we would cook a lot, but we wouldn’t have enough customers to sell our food to,” she remembers. “And we have accents speaking English. We didn’t know if people would accept us.”
When they first opened, Angelina says they were selling to customers who had never had Mexican food before. But, what they loved is that their customers were more than willing to try. “We had to teach them how to eat,” she says. “A lot of people didn’t know how to eat a tamale.” Today, tamales remain the most popular item on their menu, and with good reason. “Tamales are very easy to eat in the car.” While the Old Oak has some seating inside, most of their customers are drivers looking for something they can eat on the go. By sharing her food, Angelina soon found a community in Tennessee that was respectful and accepting, just like the one she grew up with in Mexico. “As people got to know us, to know about us, they continued to come,” says Angelina. “They love us and we love them.”
In Michigan, the Gulli family found themselves addressing some of the same issues in the early 2000s when they first started Mr. Kabob, a Middle Eastern restaurant based in their gas station. Worried that new customers would have reservations about eating food from a service station, the family purposely built an open kitchen so that they could show, with full confidence, that their food was fresh and high quality. Those worries, thankfully, never manifested.
“Within a very short time, it was zero to a hundred, and we never looked back,” says Naseem Gulli, one of the owners of Mr. Kabob. “Still to this day we get people who say, ‘I smelled this on the intersection and I pulled in and saw you guys there.’ It’s that garlic, that olive oil. It permeates.”
That entrepreneurial spirit has carried the Gulli family far. When Naseem’s parents Walid and Fadia Gulli first left for Michigan, they witnessed how much the auto industry dominated Detroit. It was the early ’70s, and Saddam Hussein was coming into power in Iraq. As Christians in a predominantly Muslim country, they were worried there wouldn’t be a future for them under his rule. So, they found a new home.
“With a lot of immigrants, they like to settle where some of their people are, and that was metro-Detroit at the time,” says Naseem. Even today, Detroit is still home to one of the largest Iraqi American communities in the United States. The Naseems bought a two-bay car garage in Berkley, Michigan, and started doing full-service auto work. “My dad was always a serial entrepreneur, always a business owner, that’s what they had [in Iraq], too,” says Naseem. When their sons grew older, Fadia and Walid converted the garage into a gas station, and with the renovation, created a space to start the restaurant they would call Mr. Kabob.
Eventually, the restaurant became busier than the station, and the family started to consider expansion. Naseem and his two brothers, who were all working other jobs at the time, came back to help the family business grow. “We would always help, but I never thought of doing it,” says Naseem. “I was in it so much, but it sort of happens that when your family needs you, you have to heed the call.”
That single gas station is now a full restaurant franchise: Today, the Gulli family own and operate four Mr. Kabob restaurants. Only the original Berkley location operates out of a gas station. A fifth location in Detroit is currently closed because of the hit the restaurant took during the pandemic. “We’re still waiting for [business] to go back to pre-COVID numbers,” says Naseem. “We’re going to try, but there is a long way to go to get back to normalcy.”
While COVID took and took so much from the restaurant industry in the past year, the pandemic offered Patty Lopez and Nunzio Fuschillo the chance to reset and rebuild. The couple first met while working at Caino, a two-Michelin star restaurant in Tuscany, Italy. Lopez was a pastry chef, while Fuschillo was a chef de cuisine. After years in Italy, they decided to try their hand at a new adventure, this time in Florida, closer to Lopez’s family. Thanks to their training and their Michelin pedigree, they were easily able to find jobs working at fine dining Italian restaurants in the U.S. Then, the pandemic hit.
“Restaurants shut down … all of Miami actually shut down, and so we just kind of panicked,” Lopez remembers. “We already have two small children and a mortgage, we needed some stability.”
As a last hurrah, they rented out a 200-square-foot kitchen area in a local gas station. It was always their dream to one day open their own place, and while a gas station wasn’t what they had in mind, it ended up being the blessing they needed. They started baking fresh breads and pastries — baguettes, focaccia and sourdough loaves in a business they named Effe Cafè. And nearly as soon as they started, they took off running.
“The pro is that it was affordable,” says Fuschillo. “We opened this place with our savings. We were like, if it happens, it happens. If it doesn’t happen, we pack the kids, we go back to Italy.” Out of their impressively tiny kitchen, armed with one convection oven and one 14-inch griddle, the couple began what Lopez calls their “micro-operation.” Every morning at 5 a.m., Fuschillo rolls croissants by hand because their kitchen is too small to hold a sheeter. But all the work quickly paid off.
“We went from 10 to 100 customers in two weeks,” Fuschillo recalls. “It exploded. After three weeks, we were like, we need a bigger space.” Now, only seven months into the launch of Effe Cafè, Fuschillo and Lopez are already considering how much longer they want to stay within the gas station, and when they might want to open up a standalone café of their own.
As I speak to each owner, I realize the choice of a gas station is always a utilitarian one. When I ask her why they chose a gas station, Angelina Rizo gives me two answers. The first is one I hear from every restaurant owner I speak to: People need gasoline, so as long as people are driving, the more likely they are to have customers, and the more likely those customers will need something to eat. It’s an explanation rooted in the same immigrant mentality I’ve seen and heard my entire life: Look for opportunities, stay on your toes, and always find a way to be useful. When we wonder why immigrants are so entrepreneurial, it’s because so many of us are taught to first look to see where we are needed, and then, once we are there, go beyond.
Her second answer was much more personal: When she travels to Florida with her family, Angelina says that they like to stop at gas stations along the way and find new foods. They know what a big part of the journey that can be; at Old Oak, they get to give that experience to someone else. Come summer, she and her sister are planning on opening up a patio at their restaurant, something with a picnic table, palm trees, music playing in the background. A place that people can gather, when they’re ready to gather, kick back, and feel a moment of bliss.
Trisha Gopal is a writer and editor based in Brooklyn, New York. Sam Angel is a photographer based in Nashville. Rosa María Zamarrón is a documentary photographer from southwest Detroit. Natalie Behring is a freelance photojournalist and photo editor based in Idaho and Wyoming, focusing on rural American issues.
Fact checked by Kelsey Lannin