ALEXANDRIA, Va.—Truck stops featuring Indian kitchens, known as a dhabas, are popping up along America’s highways in response to the growing number of Punjabi truckers, reports The Washington Post. There are now an estimated 40 dhabas across the country.
Punjabis now make up almost 20% of the U.S. trucking industry, according to Raman Dhillon, chief executive of the North American Punjabi Trucking Association.
“The driving and the trucking is in our blood,” Dhillon told The Post, adding that Punjabi truckers have been riding American highways since the late 1960s, especially in California. “And since then they just really swelled. For last 10 years, the Punjabi trucking industry is growing very fast and very big.”
The dhabas are supported by a network of Punjabi truckers who share recommendations through WhatsApp groups and TikToks. According to the Post, the influx of dhabas and their customers is “a testament to how Punjabi drivers are changing the face of the U.S. trucking industry, the highways they traverse on a daily basis, and in turn, small-town America.”
“Punjabis have done a great deal to uplift a lot of rural America. All up and down Highway 5 through California, you have dhabas, you have gurdwaras [Sikh temples],” Nicole Ranganath, an assistant professor of Middle East and South Asia studies at the University of California at Davis, told the Post. “Rural America is much more diverse than we recognize. Punjabis have contributed a huge amount to our agricultural development and economic development and cultural diversity.”
One truck stop in Vega, Texas, called The Vega Truck Stop and Indian Kitchen, is owned by Beant Sandhu, who emigrated from Punjab to Northern California in the 1990s. He purchased a gas station in Granbury, Texas, near Dallas, because he wanted “something challenging, something different, something bigger,” according to Arjot Sandhu, his 25-year-old daughter.
In 2018, the Sandhus opened the truck stop in Vega, and at first, stocked convenience store snacks and beverages that catered to an American customer, items like chips, soda and candy. But then the family realized that the trucking demographic is “actually more Indian,” Arjot told the Post, than the family had initially thought, and a friend told them about the dhabas along major U.S. highways.
The family began importing groceries from India. “[The dhaba] started growing from word to word, mouth to mouth,” Arjot told The Post. The Sandhus plan to renovate the restaurant this summer, adding showers and gas pumps. Arjot told the Post that this will help develop the dhaba into a full-service travel center for not only truckers, but also for interstate travelers and local residents.
The family hopes that their dhaba can become a model for others in the country, and that these Punjabi restaurants can eventually become a staple of the American highway. Arjot told The Post that she can already envision Punjabi dhabas joining the ranks of big-box truck stops and travel centers peppering motorways.