By Rachel Baldauf, Medill, Immigrant Connect

When Devraj Keray’s family opened the first Pioneer Cash & Carry in 1982, they sought to provide the local Artesia, Calif. community with fresh Indian groceries and products.

Since then, their business has expanded. They have two locations in Artesia and are a staple in the local community.

Now, COVID-19 is threatening Keray’s business.

Since Los Angeles County announced a stay-at-home order in March, Keray said the number of customers shopping at Pioneer Cash & Carry has fluctuated wildly.

Customers buy their groceries at Pioneer Cash & Carry (Photo credit: Pioneer Cash & Carry)

“We went through a stage where we were really, really busy,” Keray said. “And then, for one or two weeks, just before everybody started literally hoarding stuff, it settled down. Now, we’re kind of in a flatline.”

Fortunately, Keray said that shoppers now seem to be resuming their normal buying patterns. Still, he worries that shortages are soon to come.

According to Keray, nearly all of the store’s products have been imported from India.

“We literally have milk, sugar and salt, and, apart from that, everything else is from India,” Keray said.

India went under strict lockdown due to COVID-19 in March, preventing many export shipments from leaving India. This means that Keray has been unable to fulfill the product orders he needs to run his store.

“Because of that lockdown, nothing was exported two months ago,” Keray said. “So nothing is arriving now which normally would be coming in.”

Keray expects to see severe shortages for three to four more weeks. In the meantime, he is trying to source products from such places as New York and Chicago.

“We’ll just have to source as much as we can, and in the meantime, if nothing is available, that is just a vacuum that will have to be sustained by customers,” Keray said.

The pandemic hits directly at the consumer habits of customers and at their connection to home

Amirtha Krishnan is a regular customer.  She’s begun to notice the effects of the pandemic on her shopping experience.

“Initially, I found shortages for all the pulses [legumes] and rice,” Krishnan said. “Rice and pulses is the staple diet for any Indian food.”

Krishnan has also noticed price increases on the items she typically buys.

Because of the coronavirus, Krishnan has been visiting Pioneer Cash & Carry only once every two to three weeks. Normally, she visits weekly.

Not only has the coronavirus affected Krishnan’s shopping routine. It has also affected her connection to her home country of India.

Krishnan, like so many others who live in Artesia and its surrounding towns, is an immigrant from India.

Since coming to the United States in 2017, Krishnan has regularly shopped at Pioneer Cash & Carry. The store’s array of Indian products makes her feel connected to home.

Pioneer Cash & Carry is a central source of groceries for the many Indian immigrants in the area (Photo credit: Pioneer Cash & Carry Facebook Page)[Click on the photo for the Facebook page]

“Food is the most important thing that anybody would have to think about if they’re going to move from the place where they’re so used to everything,” Krishnan said. “For me, I kind of feel connected to my own food and my routine. And it hasn’t changed a bit because I get everything here that’s available in India. That makes me feel happy.”

Krishnan credits Pioneer Cash & Carry with curbing her homesickness.

“People will ask, ‘Are you missing India?’ I miss India, but not in the food,” Krishnan said.

Frequent customer and Indian immigrant Rubini D. said that shopping at Pioneer Cash & Carry and cooking Indian meals strengthens her connection to her mother.

“Sometimes it feels like home,” she said. “Sometimes it feels like your mom is just there.”

Pioneer Cash & Carry matters to Artesia 

Keray recognizes the cultural significance of his store to the local community.

“If you’re not Indian, you have multiple choices. If you’re Indian, you’re limited to where you can find the products that you need for your everyday staple items,” Keray said. “It’s a big thing to be able to serve the community with the things they’re looking for on a regular basis.”

Indian grocery options are so limited that customers come from all over to shop at Pioneer Cash & Carry. Before they got their own franchise location, Keray said that some San Diego residents would drive over 100 miles to visit his store. Today, Keray regularly sees customers from such places as Ventura and the San Fernando Valley.

“Depending on how far you live, you either come to us once or twice a month,” Keray said. “The closer you live, you come to us three times a month or every week.”

While its customers come from all over California, Pioneer Cash and Carry is particularly important for the population of Artesia.

Pioneer Cash & Carry is on Pioneer Boulevard, a hub for Indian businesses in Artesia’s Little India (Photo credit: Pioneer Cash & Carry Facebook Page)

According to census data, nearly 47% of Artesia residents are foreign born. A large percentage of that population is Indian and frequents the businesses of Artesia’s Little India community.

Artesia mayor Ali Sajjad Taj credits businesses like Keray’s with sustaining the diversity that makes the city great.

“The city of Artesia is one of the most diverse zip codes that I’ve ever seen in LA County,” Taj said. “We all come together, even from different backgrounds, as one community and one city.”

Because of his dedication to the community, Keray is determined to keep Pioneer Cash & Carry open and running despite the dangers of COVID-19.

“Everybody is depending on us to stay open,” Keray said.

Even as his own business struggles, Keray has found ways to give back to the community. Recently, the store donated rice and beans to local groups which make meals to feed those who can’t afford groceries. Keray has also been taking special measures to make sure that everyone who needs Indian groceries can get them.

“We’ve even done some personal deliveries to senior citizens in the area that couldn’t get out initially because they were really scared,” Keray said. “Everyone has come together.”