Housekeeping: The changing face of ‘Patel Motel’ in America

Sima Patel, owner of Motel 6 in North Richland Hills, Texas, at the front desk, along with Tirth Patel, an employee. Many motel owners live in rooms behind the front desk and manage the front desk themselves.

Binita Patel, daughter of a Gujarati hotel owner in North Carolina, has memory of how her parents faced racist remarks like “Go back to your own country” in the 1980s. “I remember someone pulling their window down and yelling those words,” Patel told NPR a few years ago, adding that it was a hard experience.

Some 30 years later incidents like this have generally become uncommon as Gujarati immigrants, the predominant owners of motels in the U.S., have established better connections with the local community across small towns and cities and got more integrated with local environment. They have moved forward from their often self-imposed isolation in the past.

“We used to be looked at differently most of the times by the local non-Indian population because the Gujarati motel owners used to live in total isolation and hardly made any social connection with people in the larger community,” Chandrakant Patel, who set up his first motel in Dallas, Texas, in 1976, said.

Patel, who has a masters degree in Operations Research from Stanford in 1966 and M.S. in Management Science from Johns Hopkins in 1968, says the reasons the Patels chose to live in isolation those days were due to their limited English proficiency, and partly because they did not see the need to connect to the local people as the motel patrons in small towns in far-flung areas almost always used to be out of towners, not local residents.

Housekeeping: The changing face of ‘Patel Motel’ in America

Also contributing to their cocooned existence was the fact that the motel owners lived on the motel premises, mostly behind the front desk.

“That was the mindset and thinking among the Gujaratis several decades ago, but that attitude has mostly changed with their children raised and educated in America joining the industry and slowly taking charge from their parents,” Patel, known among his friends in the industry by the nick name Chan Patel, said.

Patels are estimated to own between 80 and 90 percent of the motels in small towns and Indian-Americans overall dominate the hospitality industry, according to the Asian American Hotel Owners Association, an advocacy group for Asian hotel/motel owners. By another estimate, one out of two motels in the U.S. is now owned by Indian-Americans.

Chan Patel recalls that during those days, a Patel living in a small rural town would travel 60 to 80 miles away on weekends just to socialize with a fellow Patel motel owner.

“He would take the trouble to driving for miles just to meet someone from his own state and community in India rather than socially meeting the non-Indian guy living next door. That was the kind of insular existence they maintained,” Chan Patel said.

But things have changed over the years.

Pawan Dhingra, professor of American Studies and contributing faculty in the Department of Sociology/Anthropology at Amherst College, and author of the 2012 book, “Life Behind the Lobby: Indian American Motel Owners and the American Dream,” says as far as the Gujarati motel owners’ personal lives are concerned, today there are more opportunities for integration to the local community and to the culture.

“As the motel owners and their families now live in residences outside their motels side by side with other communities, and are launching their businesses, and their children go to schools and colleges, mixing with people from different backgrounds, they have got much better exposure with the result that the community now makes connections outside their own ethnic community,” Dhingra said.

However, he said there may be exceptions to this where the Gujaratis like many other immigrant groups prefer to socialize with people from their own community, or maintain connection with both. Many, in fact, want to have local connections, he said.

“It is not like they do not want to. In fact, people want to have both kind of connections. People are not refusing to connect with people other than Gujaratis. That is certainly not happening,” Dhingra, who had previously been chair of the Department of Sociology at Tufts University as well as museum curator of the Beyond Bollywood project at the Smithsonian Institution, told India Abroad.

Dhingra told this correspondent that the degree to which the community can integrate, however, is partly a matter of one’s personal preference and partly a matter of opportunities which are there.

Housekeeping: The changing face of ‘Patel Motel’ in America

“But there could be people in the local community who do not want to be associated with or become close friends with the Gujaratis because of their own prejudices or due to xenophobia but that is certainly not a dominant trend these days,” Dhingra said.

In his book, Dhingra notes that many of the challenges the motel owners faced had indirect relationship to their immigrant minority background.

“The bulk of owners and their families lacked racial, gendered and or class privileges relative to the institutions and cultures surrounding them,” he writes.

He said in the interview that there is a very high bar for community’s full integration and acceptance which is something they cannot control on their own because it depends on how they are treated and how they are welcomed and things like that.

“I know from my own research that these motel owners can experience a distance from local governments, from competitive ownerships and so the business side of things can get in a way of how accepted they feel in their local community, even if their neighbors have nothing to do with how they’re treated,” Dhingra said.

He said the fact that others in the community may resist their efforts at integration and that affects the general perception of their environment. “So, there is not any clear answer to your question, but I don’t think there has been a change drastically from some five or ten years ago in this respect because as I said there are no new or less barriers to personal integration than they were before,” he said.

In his book Dhingra says that most of these motel owners came to the U.S. with few resources and are self-employed, self-sufficient immigrants who have become successful as they lived their American dream.

Housekeeping: The changing face of ‘Patel Motel’ in America

Satish Duggal, right, with his son, Saket, left, and Don Shula, a former professional American football coach and player. Satish Duggal owns 14 hotels in Ohio and New York. Saket Duggal joined in his business a few years ago. 

The book, published by the Stanford University Press in 2012, notes that the owners “appear to have attained the American dream and the freedom they sought in emigrating from colonial and postcolonial conditions. “Standard theories of ethnic entrepreneurship elucidate how Indian-Americans, in particular Gujaratis attained prolific representation in the industry. It is a story of significant achievements enough to enable the next generation to integrate further.”

Although not a motel owner and not a Gujarati, restaurateur Raj Singh and his wife Priyanka, late last year, faced racist remarks by one Richard Suttles in Montana after eating in their Indian restaurant. He wrote on the restaurant’s Facebook page: “Your race is a (sic) insult to the Earth. You come here get a handout and don’t do manual labor here but make a killing off our tax dollars. So, to that. Go f*** yourself.”

Gujarati motel-owners, hardly ever face such incidents as most motels usually provide bed and breakfast only to their customers living on the facility, but the Gujarati motel owners have sometimes faced barriers in their businesses. Experts point out the inequalities of race, gender and culture the immigrants face cannot be downplayed.

Dhingra’s book talks about the Gujaratis’ accomplishments as well as their marginalization at the same time. “As immigrant entrepreneurs get closer to the American dream of a house, a stable business and content family life, their community moves closer to full citizenship, that is equal opportunity to pursue the economic, cultural, social and other interests,” it notes.

“Indian-Americans fought for full citizenship every day when they navigated institutionalized realms, like dealing with local governments and interpersonal interactions like checking guests into their motel.”

In 1976 when Chan Patel, who is now 74, founded the Alamo Plaza Hotel Courts Dallas, he still worked as an executive for now defunct domestic airline Braniff International. For initial months Patel, who came to the U.S. for higher studies, continued with the airline job while coming to the motel during lunch break.

He would man the front desk during that time and give a helping hand to his wife to do laundry for the customers and other odd jobs. He and his wife and four children had left a 2,000 square-feet house to live in rooms behind the motel’s front desk.

“It was a tough life managing both my airline job and the motel at the same time. I had to sacrifice a lot, especially in terms of my family life but I realized soon that I was saving a lot of money in terms of rent, utilities and phone bills because I was staying on my own property and using the motel’s phone and power connections.

“I started seeing profits too in no time and that is when I realized that I have not made a bad move and I gave up my airline job to fully devote to motel business,” Chan Patel told India Abroad.

He admitted although he had two master’s degrees from prestigious institutions and was employed with the airline as an executive, he never felt bad doing small jobs at his motel because money was a great reward.

His income that time — from $35,000 a year from the airline job — just doubled within a few months once he started the motel in September 1976.

“When you do this type of work — managing the front desk and other odd jobs like fixing an electrical connection or even helping with laundry as an employee of somebody else, you will perhaps feel bad but not really so when you do such work at a motel that you own. Then you really don’t feel it’s a big deal! You feel you are working for a better future for yourself and your family,” Patel said. “You really don’t feel bad when you are earning good money.”

Satya Jeet, a Pennsylvania-based a writer and journalist for CBS Television as a news cameraman in 1980 in New York who had worked for several motels across the U.S., including in California, said the Patel community in the U.S. is “certainly a rags-to-riches story that fits into the American myth” despite the fact that the Patel community is not a traditional business community as their name, “Patidars,” reflect their “farmer origin” in Gujarat.

Chan Patel had grown his business from just one independent motel to 13 small independent hotels by 1987. Currently he and his two sons own eight hotels including Hilton, Best Western and Marriott today, including six in New York city managed by his sons.

Patel retired from active involvement with the industry after his children, who by his own admission never wanted to join the industry, later took interest and joined the hospitality business. In 1987 he founded the State Bank of Texas, one of the top 100 community banks under 3 billion in assets in the U.S. and ranked 8th overall in 2018, according to S&P ranking. Patel is the chairman and CEO of the bank. His sons Sushil, an MBA from University of Chicago, is the bank’s president while the younger son Rajan, a BS Finance Texas A&M, and a graduate of SMU Graduate School of Banking, is its chief lending officer.

By common consent, Gujaratis have very good entrepreneurial acumen and excel at whatever businesses they undertake despite their other real or perceived shortcomings. In their home state in Gujarat, entrepreneurship is revered almost as a religion and entrepreneurs like a demigod.

Reliance Industry chief Mukesh Ambani, India’s richest man has a net worth of $47.3 billion, according to Forbes. There are as many as 58 Gujarati billionaires in 2017 in India with net worth in dollar terms worth between $1.46 billion and $19 billion each.

Dinesh Awasthi, director of Entrepreneurship Development Institute, Ahmedabad, was once quoted in Businessline.com in 2013 as saying that the entire ecosystem of Gujarati culture works around entrepreneurship. “Entrepreneurship is in their blood.”

No doubt in that.

“Gujarati children are exposed to money making businesses early on. Even in social gatherings people talk about business rather than bureaucracy, politics, or literature,” he was quoted as saying. At the time, the name Patel ranked 174 among the top 500 surnames in the U.S.

The Gujarati motel owners’ mental makeup and business acumen is manifest in a 2015 YouTube movie called “Motel Patel” directed and produced by Sanjini Bhakta, a Zimbabwe-born Gujarati actor from San Francisco. The short movie brings a slice of life around a Gujarati-owned motel where the owner and his family live on the premises and the enterprising wife is the driving force behind the business.

Both Patel as well as Ocala, Florida-based Digvijay “Danny” Gaekwad, a Baroda-born entrepreneur who has built over a dozen small and medium-sized companies worth hundreds of millions of dollars, as diverse as in real estate development, hospitality industry and in information technology, said there has been a tremendous change in the hotel/motel industry from the initial days in the last two decades.

Echoing author Dhingra’s take on the subject, both Gaekwad and Patel said that the Patels have not only got more integrated to the areas they live in, but the second generation of the Patel entrepreneurs have got good education and they are as much Americans today as any other community in America.

“There is definitely a difference in the mindset of Indian hotel/motel owners of today—they mingle not only with their own community but also with the mainstream folks thanks to their education and exposure.

“But I must add that there are also some in the Gujarati hotel/motel community who are still captive of their own orthodox ways of looking at things and refuse to smell the roses,” Gaekwad, who is a Republican and serves on the governmental committee of AAHOA, told India Abroad.

Chan Patel said a typical motel owner today is at least a millionaire and at least 50 percent of them will fly to India first class or business class.

“That’s indicative of how much progress they have made in business. As for social interaction with the mainstream community, the Gujarati motel owners often donate to political candidates whether in local elections or state elections because they have learned through experience that it pays to give $500 or $1,000 in donation to a candidate.

“Those token donations stand them in good stead in the long run,” Patel said. “This is another way for them to cement relationships with the local community.”

Dhingra notes in his book that at issue is how to analyze and measure adaptation and in assessing adaptation, the most common question has been how much of a certain variable like education, income, interracial friendships and respect, a group like the Patel motel owners has attained.”

As a group achieves more —more education, more income and so on — the implication is integration and equality. Much of the debate on immigrants’ adaptation and the effects of race and imperialism has been around how much or how little a group has attained.”

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