Punjabi Deli Provides Relief to Taxi Drivers

Tucked away on the Lower East Side at 114 East First St. is Punjabi Grocery & Deli, described by Jake Safane for The Lo-Down as a “hole-in-the-wall takeout/convenience store.” Despite its unassuming appearance, it’s a local sanctuary – for those looking for “bargain prices” in the pricey neighborhood but more so, for the taxi drivers who make up 80 percent of its customers.

Kulwinder “Jani” Singh, owner of Punjabi Grocery & Deli in the Lower East Side, provides affordable meals and a resting spot for its many cab driver customers. (Photo by Jake Safane via The Lo-Down)

Kulwinder “Jani” Singh, owner of Punjabi Grocery & Deli in the Lower East Side, provides affordable meals and a resting spot for his many cab driver patrons. (Photo by Jake Safane via The Lo-Down)

As part of a series on eateries in the Lower East Side, Safane profiles owner Kulwinder “Jani” Singh, a devoted Sikh from the Punjab region of India. After working oil ships in Greece, he arrived in Brooklyn in 1980 where he performed jobs in different fields before becoming a taxi driver in the 1990s. He would eat at his friend’s Indian convenience store on a daily basis,  perhaps foreshadowing what was to come.

Then in 1994, he bought that little store with his business partner Satnam Singh (no relation) and started serving his own version of homestyle Punjabi food.

The bargain prices – even large meals at only $5.50 – might explain the patronage of taxi drivers, whose regular visits, says Safane, makes the nickname of “Jani,” – which he says is an Indian nickname for someone who is ‘known to everyone'” – quite fitting.

But it’s not all camaraderie and smooth sailing. With the majority of his customers being taxi drivers, Singh takes issue with Mayor Bloomberg’s transportation measures.

Singh says he has lost half his business over the past few years with less parking available in the area and construction on Houston Street making it harder for taxis to stop at his deli. Singh is adamantly against Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s bicycle and bus initiatives that have eliminated parking spots.

Singh vocally supports his loyal patrons – familiar himself with the challenges and toil of driving a cab – and not just when it comes to his store but also when it comes to giving citywide “relief” to the taxi drivers.

In order to help his business and support cab drivers, Singh wants taxi relief stands (designated areas where taxis can park and leave their cars for an hour) in front of his deli and throughout the Lower East Side. He is currently building a coalition of drivers with the goal of putting 10,000 votes behind a mayoral candidate who supports the relief stands.

“Taxi drivers should have the same respect [as] a police officer,” Singh says. “Because they are also serving the city.”

Himself a vegetarian, Singh only serves that type of food. It doesn’t just fit his religion but “makes it easier for followers of other religions such as Islam to eat his food,” writes Safane, who with Singh’s help, gives a rundown of plate recommendations.

Many of the dishes change based on what vegetables are available, but others like chickpeas and saag (a combination of spinach, mustard greens and broccoli rabe) are featured every day. For those new to Punjabi, Singh recommends starting with a samosa over chickpeas ($3, and this author recommends getting it with the works—onions, yogurt, hot sauce and sweet sauce…somehow it all comes together in a delicious fashion). For the other dishes, though, Singh finds it easier to number them because some of the names can be hard for customers to remember. Just ask what’s in the dish if you’re unsure, he says, and soon you’ll be calling out numbers.

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