Bay Area restaurateur Surinder Sroa, 62, sees Indian Spices and Groceries, which opened on July 1 at 3265 22nd St., as an affirmation of his friendship with 34-year-old Dhruba Kunwar, now a business partner as well as a friend.
Kunwar has wanted to open a store with Sroa since they met seven years ago at India Chaat & Sweets, in Berkeley.
“I told him, ‘If you want to do it, I’ll do it for you,’” said Sroa. “I don’t need it. But I’ll do it for you. And whatever the profit comes, you know, all the expense, we’ll just divide it.”
Kunwar, originally from the city of Pokhara, Nepal, emigrated in 2009, after winning the Diversity Visa Lottery program. Two years ago, he moved to the Mission and discovered a complete absence of Indian grocery stores — the only previous store, Bombay Bazaar and Ice Cream on Valencia Street, closed in 2010.
“There is literally nothing else around here, so that’s why I wanted to do this business,” Kunwar said. He added, “People need it for convenience.”
While the latest census figures from 2017 show that “Asians” — people whose heritage traces back to China, Japan, India, etc. —make up 13.4 percent of the Mission, Kunwar also thinks start-ups have a fair number of South Asian employees, living or working in the area, who might become customers. Already, he said, most of the South Asian shoppers he’s spoken with work in the tech industry.
While Sroa’s son, Jyoti Sroa, oversees his two restaurants and now two grocery stores, Kunwar will manage the store day-to-day.
“People want their authentic products,” said Kunwar, who explained that he can procure anything a customer needs, and he enjoys being part of the process. “After getting that product, they are so happy — I like that.” Kunwar works with a baby monitor near the cash register so that he or his wife — when she works at the store — can stay abreast of what is happening in their apartment above the store.
While this is Kunwar’s first venture, for Sroa, the opening is the latest step in a journey that began in the 1980s with jobs at Winchell’s Donuts, Alpha Beta grocery and then Mollie Stone’s Market in Mill Valley. He met his wife Linda, and she can be credited for sparking his interest in restaurants.
When the food at an Indian restaurant fell short on a date with his in-laws, he decided to open his own.
“I don’t have a background in food — cooking or prepping,” Sroa said. “And I told Linda that I’m opening a restaurant, and she said, ‘You’re out of your mind.’ And I said,’No,’ and that’s it. So we did it, and we’ve been very successful.”
He did however, have some connection to grocery stores back in Punjab: “My dad has a grocery store since 1920. I never imagined in my life that I would be doing this kind of thing.” He left his home of Jalandhar to branch out. Being the youngest son in a big family, it felt necessary.
He once owned Lotus SF in the Mission, but sold it to restaurateur Ajay Khadka. Then, in 2018, he purchased the two-story structure that is now home to the Mission spice store.
Sroa said his role is helping Kunwar, who worked as a journalist in his own country, understand how to run a grocery store. Sroa’s associate, Sumn Bastola, who manages the San Rafael restaurant, is also helping.
Sroa hopes to get Kunwar to a point where he can oversee daily operations himself. Already, he’s cut back on his own visits to once a week — the day the supply orders arrive.
“I deal with so many employees,” Sroa said. He continued, “I always liked him — you go with your gut feeling. He’s a very honest person — he’s a journalist. So, I trust him.”
The location of the new store is also an attempt to make buying Indian spices and foods convenient for those who live in the city. “Since you’re in the city, you can’t go to Fremont, and you can’t go to Sunnyvale,” said Sroa. “You get a better deal there, but then who wants to drive?”
The new store has two main aisles with shelves stacked with imports like herbal remedies, loose-leaf masala chai, ghee, sweet biscuits and small, ready-made spice mixes, among a plethora of other items.
There are fridges to the sides and in the back of the store carrying frozen foods, like samosas and naan, and fresh produce. There’s a shelf in the front dedicated to Nepali products, too. All of their products are imported from vendors in India and Nepal, like Organic India.
Sroa said making a successful store requires “dreaming and breathing about the store — what the customer wants, make that list, and make it happen.”
Indian Grocery & Spices is located at 3256 22nd St. The store is open Tuesday through Sunday, 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Hours are flexible. For more information, visit their website here.