For the five years that Kulwinder Singh spent behind the wheel of a cab, grocery stores and delis across New York turned him away from their restrooms, even when he was a paying customer. Cab drivers he knew would go the entire day without a bathroom break, and there were rarely designated parking spots for longer periods away from the road or in case of emergency. When he took over a small storefront shop called Punjabi Grocery & Deli on East 1st Street in 1994, his first thought was to offer cab drivers a 24-hour restroom, free of charge—a place to decompress during or after a long day behind the wheel. Twenty-five years later, Punjabi Deli is a neighborhood institution.
Punjabi Grocery and Deli is a typical South Asian canteen, serving a simple menu of rice, chaat (a variety of snack food common across the Subcontinent, consisting of fried doughs and chutneys), and a collection of staple vegetable dishes like saag (spinach), chana masala (spiced chickpeas), yellow dal, and curried potatoes with bell peppers. The dark green awning that reaches out over the sidewalk bears only the word Punjabi, the demonym for people from the region of Punjab, split between northwestern India and eastern Pakistan, where Singh was born.