Berkeley Merchant Reigns Over Indian Food Market

Tuesday January 06, 2004

Whether you’re dining out on piping hot naan or sampling masala paste for your homemade Indian dish, wherever you live in the Bay Area, it’s all but assured that almost every ingredient made a pit stop at a saffron-scented warehouse in West Berkeley. 

Twenty years after it was founded to keep beer flowing at what was then the Bay Area’s 16 Indian Restaurants, Vik Distributors—the parent company of West Berkeley’s famous chaat house—has emerged as chief supplier to over 250 Bay Area Indian restaurants and grocery stores. 

“People don’t need to pack food in their suitcases anymore,” said Vinod Chopra, the company’s president who arrived in Berkeley from Bombay in 1982 to find the supply of Taj Mahal beer at the San Francisco restaurant where his brother worked spotty at best. 

A marketer of pharmaceuticals in his native country, Chopra set out the following year to apply professional distribution practices to the nascent Indian beer market, winning an exclusive contract to supply the brews to Indian restaurants in every Bay Area county. 

Chopra quickly expanded into the food business, importing such Indian staples as rice, lentils and an array of spices for his restaurant accounts.  

Though tamarind, cardamom and coriander are synonymous with India, stringent government quality standards have kept many Indian products from crossing U.S. borders, forcing Chopra to scour the globe for “Indian food.”  

He gets his tamarind from Thailand and green cardamom from Guatemala, but hopes that, as India continues to modernize, its products will pass muster with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. The FDA also has longstanding bans on Indian mangoes and chikoos—a kiwi like fruit—much to the dismay of Indian shoppers. 

Chopra said his business has merely added variety to a Berkeley Indian food market that’s been bustling for decades. Before the rise of Silicon Valley shifted the community’s center of gravity south, Berkeley was the hub of Northern California Indian culture—with immigrants coming from as far as Sacramento to buy groceries, clothes, jewelry and electric converters for their 220-volt appliances. 

“Before the tech boom, many Indians gravitated to Berkeley either as professors or students at the university,” Chopra said. “Now it’s mostly the old timers with tough habits to break who come here to shop.” 

Despite the decline of jobs in Silicon Valley and visas for Indian tech workers, Chopra said the food business remains stable. Most threatening he said, is not the drop in new immigrants but the rising popularity of Indian spices that has attracted national brands like Schilling into what was once the exclusive territory of Indian merchants. 

The bigger brands buy at cheaper prices, but once Chopra gets the food to his warehouse, expenses are minimal. “We’re like the Costco for Indian restaurants,” he said. “Other companies might buy it for less, but their packaging and distribution costs are higher.” 

From his warehouse Chopra can deliver virtually anything an Indian restaurant could possibly want—food, tandoori ovens, even statues of Ganesh, a Hindu deity.  

What doesn’t go to local restaurants heads to grocery stores, including Vik’s own shop in West Berkeley.  

Among customers sifting through aisles of Indian curry paste, ginger paste and toothpaste, satisfaction with the selection depended on where in India the customer hails from. For those from the north or west—where Chopra grew up—the selection in Berkeley rivals that of home. “You get more things here than you get in India,” said Varsha Salan. “Here we can have food from all over India. There, only the food from our region was available.” 

But for Subha Sirnivasan, an immigrant from South India, Berkeley doesn’t have all the delicacies of her childhood. “You can get the common things here, but for a lot of South Indian groceries I have to go to Sunnyvale.” 

Though Chopra said he doesn’t plan on expanding his selection anytime soon, he’s recently returned to his roots, becoming the exclusive importer of Sula, the first Indian wine brought to the U.S. 

The wine has found a home at restaurants known for spicy food including The Slanted Door in San Francisco, but Chopra so far hasn’t bothered to sample his latest offering. 

“I’m purely a scotch man,” he said.