Hamid & Sons
An immigrant family’s 40-year quest for the American dream.
New York | September 28, 2008
ONE DAY IN 1968, Abdul Hamid walked into the U.S. Consulate in Lahore, Pakistan, hoping to obtain a visa. He was 40 years old, had five children, and had never been to America before. His black-and-white passport photo shows an unsmiling man with dark hair and a thin mustache; his height is recorded as five-five. At the time, very few Indians, and even fewer Pakistanis, were immigrating to America, and those who did were usually students or professionals, with titles like doctor or engineer. Abdul’s education had ended in the seventh grade, after his mother died and he went to work in his father’s sweets shop.
He didn’t know what he would do to make a living in America, but he knew he needed to get out of Pakistan. Disputes over a pharmacy he ran with a relative had soured him on the business. And the threat of religious persecution was looming; several years later, many members of his Islamic sect would be killed. A nephew enrolled in graduate school in New York urged him to immigrate. The land of opportunity, he said, was a place called Queens.
The INS admitted 67,943 immigrants to New York City that year. Nearly 25,000 came from the Caribbean: Jamaica, the Dominican Republic, Haiti, Trinidad, Cuba. Others arrived in large numbers from Italy, Greece, China, Yugoslavia, and Colombia. Only 507 came from India, even fewer from Pakistan. At the time, New York’s Indian population numbered no more than a few thousand. There was no Little India in Jackson Heights, no Curry Hill by Lexington and 28th Street.
When Abdul first arrived, he stayed with his nephew in a mosque on Archer Avenue in Jamaica, sleeping on the floor of the prayer room. His nephew was his sole source of companionship; the two spoke Urdu to each other, but Abdul, who knew little English, had no one else to talk to. With his nephew’s help, he got a job as a dishwasher in a restaurant at Kennedy airport. The pay was $45 a week. Some days he was told to clean the toilets, too, though at first he wasn’t sure how since the toilets were so different from those back home.
He worked his way up to busboy, and within a year he had a job as a security guard at the airport. In the fall of 1970, he borrowed money from a friend in Pakistan to bring over his family: his wife and their children, four boys and a girl, ages 7 to 16. They joined him in Richmond Hill, where he had moved into an apartment with his nephew and his nephew’s family. With eleven people squeezed into two bedrooms, the children slept on the floor.
“The first five years was the toughest time of our life,” says Abdul’s oldest son, Salam. “There were many times we asked our father that we should go back, but he was so determined. He said, ‘Listen. Now we are here, and we have no way of going back.’” Salam thought he knew where his father’s determination came from: “He had seen another migration before,” he says, “so he knew how to handle the situation.” Abdul was born to a Muslim family in India and had moved to Pakistan following Partition in 1947. Carrying all his belongings in a single sack, he’d made the trip by himself at age 19. “It was a matter of survival,” Salam says.
Now in another foreign land, Abdul was determined to do more than survive. His zeal would propel the family forward over the next four decades, as their fortunes soared and plunged and then began to climb once again.
IT WAS IN THE TINY KITCHEN of the family’s home in Queens that Abdul decided, in 1972, to try to start a business. Though he lacked a formal education, he had one skill he thought he could capitalize on: He had learned from his father how to make sweets. In India and Pakistan, sweets are everywhere—sold on street corners, eaten as snacks, presented as gifts—but there was no place to buy them in New York. At the time, the family was living in half of a two-family house in Elmhurst, and Abdul was working two jobs: nights as a watchman at Chase Manhattan Bank and days at the McDonald’s across the street from their house. After scraping together $100 from his paychecks, he bought a candy oven and started cooking ladoos—large sweet balls made of chickpea flour mixed with sugar syrup. The smell of frying oil filled every room of the house.
The first customer was a childhood friend of Abdul’s who had also migrated to New York. He picked up his sweets at the Hamids’ house, and soon the family was getting calls for more. For a homesick immigrant, there was something irresistible about the intensely sweet sensation of a ladoo crumbling in your mouth. The business soon expanded to include samosas as well as sweets. Word spread to Columbia University, where Indian students became regular customers. And each week Salam took the subway to Manhattan to drop off paper bags of sweets at two Indian grocery stores near Lexington and 29th Street.
Abdul continued to work his two jobs, making sweets in the hours between his McDonald’s shift and his start time at the bank. At night, Salam and his brother Momin would pick up where he left off. They’d arrive home at 10 or 11 p.m., after school and work, to find a tub of fried chickpea kernels in the kitchen, next to a note: “You have to make these ladoos by the morning.” They’d stay up until 2 or 3 a.m. watching Westerns on TV and rolling the fried dough into perfectly round balls. The two teenagers never really had much of a choice in the matter. Salam still remembers what happened the day he asked his father if he could go out with his friends instead of working in the kitchen. “He picked up the rolling pin … and came toward me,” Salam recalls. “He said, ‘Remember one thing: I’m going to make this a success. And just like Macy’s, my company will be known!’”
For Abdul, there was more than one benefit to putting his children to work. The more hours they spent making sweets, the less time they had to hang out with—and be influenced by—their American friends. When Abdul had arrived in New York, the sight of couples kissing in public had appalled him; he made a point of always looking away. The family prayed together every night, and went to the mosque most Fridays and Sundays, but still he worried that American culture would undermine his children’s strict religious beliefs. At first, he was even concerned about sending his daughter to public school. “He didn’t want my sister to go because it was mixed classes,” says Salam. “I told my dad: ‘Listen, Dad, if she doesn’t go to school, I’ll call the police.’” Salam prevailed.
Even Tariq, the youngest, caused an uproar when he came home from school and announced that his third-grade class was learning how to dance. Boys and girls dancing together? Abdul’s nephew, the only family member who was proficient in English, went to school the next day and explained to the teacher that Tariq was not allowed to participate. “It’s against our religion,” he said. While his classmates practiced dancing together, Tariq sat in the back of the auditorium and watched. “It felt embarrassing,” he says. It was hard enough just being the only South Asian kid in the class. “Nobody knew what a Muslim was,” he recalls. “Nobody knew where Pakistan was.”
IN THE SPRING OF 1973, Abdul Hamid and his sons opened a small store just off Woodside Avenue in Elmhurst, a dozen blocks from their home. They promoted it as the city’s first Indian-Pakistani sweet-shop and called it Shaheen Sweets. But in truth, it wasn’t much of a store—really a converted garage, 400 square feet, attached to an apartment building. The monthly rent was $175. The leader of the family’s mosque came to bless the kitchen, but the business did not have an auspicious start. The first day drew only one customer, and she bought just one sweet. Total sales: 25 cents.
But news of the opening of Shaheen Sweets spread along the immigrant grapevine. It helped that the couple who ran the sari shop around the corner made a point of steering customers their way. As business improved, Abdul quit both of his jobs and worked full time in the kitchen. Six months after the shop opened, Shaheen Sweets was bringing in around $300 a day—almost $100,000 a year. Abdul started thinking about expanding.
His son Salam opened the first Shaheen restaurant, at Lexington Avenue and 27th Street, in 1976. “Being the very first Indian-Pakistani fast-food restaurant in New York, we became famous like crazy,” he says. “At 9:30, the line would start outside. By the time we opened at 10 a.m., there were at least 30 or 40 people.” The family then opened two restaurants in Jackson Heights; Momin, the second son, ran Shaheen’s Palace on 37th Avenue. “I had a three-hour wait to get a table,” he says.
By the mid-eighties, Shaheen Sweets was not quite Macy’s, but it had become a household name among the city’s South Asians. The company manufactured more than 25 types of sweets and supplied some 500 grocery stores nationwide. “I go up, up, up,” Abdul recalls. “We have 80 people. We have two kitchens. I worked day and night. Sometimes I work 36 hours.” Some days, he’d sleep in a corner of the kitchen, using a grocery bag as his pillow. “I spend my whole life at work, and that’s it.”
It was the sort of trajectory every immigrant entrepreneur dreams of, and soon Abdul had amassed enough money to buy a house in one of Queens’ most expensive neighborhoods: Forest Hills Gardens. The family’s new home had three stories, five bedrooms, three baths, and a backyard. At age 54, thirteen years after coming to the United States, Abdul had achieved the American dream, New York style.
He also took the opportunity to spoil his kids. “Whatever we wanted, my father never said no,” says Tariq, who became the envy of his high-school classmates when, in his senior year, he started driving a Cadillac Eldorado. “Tahir used to have a Mercedes-Benz. He was the lavish one.” Tahir, the second youngest, agrees. “Good shoes. Good clothing. I was buying shoes at Barneys, Saks Fifth Avenue. Three, four times I would go to England to do shopping there,” he says. “When we had it, I did it. Why not?”
IN THE YEARS AFTER the Hamid family came to America, the city’s Indian population exploded; by 1990, it had reached nearly 100,000. The boom had fueled Shaheen Sweets’ rapid growth, of course, but it also brought competition. The city was now home to many, many other immigrants who were starting their own Indian restaurants and manufacturing their own sweets. By the early nineties, the family had begun to learn that, as hard won as their success was, it would be even harder to hold on to.
First, Salam lost his restaurant at Lexington and 27th. So many competitors had sprouted up in Manhattan’s Little India that the lines outside his restaurant had disappeared. But his main problem was the real-estate market. He had bought the restaurant’s building near the height of the eighties real-estate boom for $1 million, but by 1990 he was told it was worth only $400,000. “Our loan came due, and the bank refused to renew it,” he says. “It went into foreclosure. In 1993, it was auctioned off on the block.” Salam also lost a quarter-million dollars when the stock market tanked in 1987. At age 40, he went bankrupt. “I lost my house, I lost my building, I lost everything,” he says. Eventually, he borrowed money from his brother Momin to buy a restaurant in Baltimore and start over.
By 2001, Momin was the one in trouble. The city’s Indian population had climbed to 206,228 the previous year—more than doubling over the prior decade—and Momin could count 26 Indian restaurants in the four-block area surrounding his restaurant, Shaheen’s Palace. There wasn’t enough business to go around. Shaheen’s Palace closed that year. Momin left the family business altogether and became an inspector at the City Department of Health.
The only Shaheen branch left in the city was on the corner of 72nd Street and Broadway in Jackson Heights. This 3,600-square-foot building housed the sweets business, a restaurant on the first floor, and a catering hall in the back. A decade earlier, Abdul had handed over this branch to his youngest son, Tariq, as a wedding gift. Abdul and Tariq continued to go to work every day, but even the company flagship was struggling.
In the months after 9/11, sales plunged. Nobody was in the mood to buy sweets. “Business was slow, animosity was high, and everyone was scared to go out,” Tariq says. One of their employees, 55-year-old Muhammad Rafiq Butt, stopped coming to work. It took a while to figure out what happened, but eventually they learned that he was in jail in New Jersey, one of hundreds of people swept up in the aftermath of 9/11. The INS had detained him because his visitor’s visa had run out. He barely spoke English. Thirty-three days after he was taken into custody, he had a heart attack and died in his cell.
THE FEAR AND ANXIETY eventually began to dissipate, and the sweets business picked up again, but it was impossible not to be plagued by thoughts of what might have been. “We could’ve been an empire,” Tariq says. “We could have handed out franchises left and right.” His older brother, Tahir, who today drives a 2002 Toyota Camry instead of a Mercedes, says, “Because we were first and we were the biggest, today we could’ve had a billion dollars.”
Everyone has their opinions about what went wrong. Tahir puts some of the blame on disloyal employees—sweets chefs his father trained, who then left the company to work for its competitors. “They diluted the whole business,” he says. Tariq says he and his brothers bear much of the responsibility: “We got into conflicts with each other, and everybody started splitting apart. That’s when the whole world … took advantage.”
But nobody seems more haunted by the missed opportunities of the past than Abdul. On a recent evening, he sits at his dining-room table in Forest Hills Gardens, in the same house he bought 26 years ago. He lives here with his wife, Tariq, and Tariq’s family. At the moment, Tariq’s two children are in the living room, each facing a different screen: Ten-year-old Anoosha is logged on to Club Penguin on the computer, while 14-year-old Taimur plays Major League Baseball on the television. A photograph of Hadhrat Mirza Tahir Ahmad, the former leader of the Ahmadiyya Muslim community, hangs on the wall above the television.
Abdul turned 80 years old last spring. He still resembles the serious young man in his old passport photos, but now he has a white mustache, rounded shoulders, and tired eyes.
“I waste too much money,” he says, “$10,000 I spend.”
Too much money on what?
“Sign. Shaheen Sweets.”
His grandson comes over to help translate. He speaks to his grandfather in Urdu, then says, “He’s saying that he wasted too much money putting signs up in stadiums.”
Salam, who had studied marketing at Queens College, bought the ads in the early eighties. One ran on the scoreboard inside Yankee Stadium; the other flashed on the Yankees electronic billboard next to the Major Deegan. They were an idea Abdul never liked and apparently has never forgotten.
He rattles off a litany of other regrets. There was the $10,000 he spent on the Pakistani Day Parade. There was the 10,000-square-foot factory they set up in East New York in the eighties—a $1 million–plus investment—which was lost by 2001. “One machine: $75,000. And one machine: $250,000,” he says, referring to the packing equipment his sons bought.
“My idea is just to bake sweets,” he says. “That’s it.”
OVER THE PAST FOUR DECADES, the Hamid family has more than quadrupled in size. Abdul’s sons and daughter have all married—and all but one had arranged marriages to members of the family’s sect. (The only one who didn’t, Tahir, married a woman who used to frequent the family’s restaurant in Jackson Heights, but he eventually divorced her and remarried, to a fellow Ahmadi.) The youngest sibling, Tariq, says that in his early twenties, he was opposed to the idea of arranged marriage. “I became too Americanized,” he says. But he changed his mind as he grew older, and when he was 28 he went back to Pakistan and married a woman chosen for him by his mother.
All five Hamid children now have children of their own. There are fifteen grandchildren and four great-grandchildren. The third generation includes an NYPD officer, a computer engineer, an IT manager for Entertainment Weekly, an M.B.A. student at Johnson & Wales, a Columbia graduate student in physics, and a freshman at Brooklyn Tech. One grandchild has entered the family business: Salam’s oldest son runs a Shaheen restaurant in Hicksville and, this past summer, opened a second place next door that serves halal Chinese food.
The name Shaheen is still above the red-and-white awning outside of 72-09 Broadway in Jackson Heights, but the family no longer runs the restaurant on the first floor. Tariq leased it out a few years ago; now he just oversees the sweets operation in the basement. Abdul still shows up for work most days, and on a recent Wednesday he arrives at 8:30 a.m. He enters through a grate on the sidewalk to get to the basement, taking the stairs very slowly. Ten days earlier, he fell on his way home from the dentist.
He shuffles through the kitchen, past the three chefs, all men in their forties or fifties, leaning over giant woks atop a hot stove, dark spots on their forearms left by droplets of frying oil; past two women seated on plastic crates, stuffing and folding samosas; past a few more women packing sweets into plastic containers. Some days, Abdul joins the workers in the kitchen and peels carrots or potatoes for samosas. Or he’ll roll into perfect balls the gulab jamuns—a sticky sweet resembling a doughnut hole, made with milk and flour, then deep-fried and dipped in sugar syrup. Other times, he sits at his desk in the small office he shares with Tariq and fields calls from customers, giving out prices and taking orders, talking in Urdu and English. And, of course, sometimes he tells Tariq what to do. Does Tariq listen? “He’s an American boy,” Abdul says.
Abdul still has visions of empire. “When I feel better, I will start making Shaheen American Bakery,” he says, describing a new line of American-style pastries to sell alongside his Indian-Pakistani sweets. But today the focus is on filling the order sheets that cover the wall in the basement packing area—one for East West Foods in Sacramento, California, another for Mideast Market in Manchester, Missouri. Everyone is working a little faster than usual. With the upcoming arrival of Eid, the holiday marking the end of Ramadan, grocery stores have begun doubling their orders. For Shaheen Sweets, it’s the busiest time of the year.