We Are…Local Businesses

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Photo/Elisa Edgar

Outside India Pavilion on East Calder Way in downtown State College, PA, taken Sept. 28, 2020. “This is what we do,” owner Baljinder Dadra said. “This is what we’ve been doing for a while and we’re part of the community.” To Dadra, like many, his business means the world to him.

Elisa Edgar, Opinion Editor

State College has always depended on local businesses. Now, after the economic crisis that consumed the U.S. in the spring, local businesses are depending on State College residents more than ever before. The often unseen business owners create the fabric of this town, filling streets with enticing aromas and hot meals. The faces and families behind the food of our town make State College a place to call home.

State College staples India Pavilion, Yallah Taco, Lupita’s, Kaarma Indian Cuisine, and Rey Azteca are a few restaurants that share two things in common: a small town in Pennsylvania and a global pandemic. Five different restaurants, five different families, and five different attempts at staying afloat while our country submerged last spring. 

India Pavilion

Since March of 1997, India Pavilion has sat tucked away on 222 East Calder Way beneath a set of stairs in downtown State College. The North Indian cuisine fills the air, from chicken curry to mango ice cream, and the restaurant is a community staple for locals to gather and eat. When his uncle and dad opened the restaurant, Baljinder Dadra was just 10. Now, he’s the owner. 

33-year-old Dadra never could have expected what 2020 had in store. As the national shutdown began over spring break and students were told to stay home, losses became immediate. 

“It affected us a lot,” Dadra said. “I’d probably say we’re at about 25% of what we used to be, as far as revenue is concerned. I’ve had to let go of some of the staff.”

As a co-owner with his dad, the entire business is rooted in family. Dadra’s parents, sister, brother-in-law, and wife have all helped out. Having been in State College for nearly 24 years, they have a strong local customer base. However, as students returned this fall, locals retreated, and the number of customers retreated with them. 

“With all the restrictions going on, people are still a bit nervous to come out. It’s had its ups and downs, but I believe it’s been fairly difficult,” Dadra said. 

Taking large hits in their catering business, with no venues to feed all summer, was also a missed opportunity to increase revenue. Despite all of this, Dadra optimistically awaits normalcy. 

“Things will definitely, definitely, kick back to before, it’s just all a matter of time. It’s just a matter of when the vaccine comes out, and how the government handles all that in execution,” Dadra said. He estimates a return to normal in one to possibly three years. 

As a State High and Penn State graduate, Dadra grew up in the State College community. 

“It’s more than business itself,” he said. “It’s a stable atmosphere, the community, and just being a part of it. It means a lot to us.”

 

Yallah Taco

Since the pandemic, Hitham Hiyajneh has had to close five out of the six businesses he owned in State College. Yallah Taco remains a staple downtown for Mexican food, including heavy burritos, refreshing soda, and (of course) tacos. The students they depended on, however, left with no return.

Hiyajneh lost about 70% of his business in the new ghost town that became State College. Even after moving locations to College Ave., business only slightly improved. For two weeks, he had to shut down when a few of his employees were exposed to COVID-19. In the meantime, he and his family carried the load. 

Hiyajneh didn’t pay the rent for five months, and in some locations, still doesn’t. 

“I’ve had to choose between paying rent and giving my employees money,” Hiyajneh said. “I chose employees over rent. Not because I don’t care about the guy who’s my landlord, but because my landlord can survive more than my employees. My employees live paycheck by paycheck.”

As a business of brothers, Hiyajneh can’t claim himself for government support, since they’re not a corporation. 

“We got like $4,000, that’s nothing. The big corporations get the money, we don’t get it,” Hiyajneh said. “We spent over $120,000 just to survive, and that’s our savings, gone.”

Yallah Taco also suffers from the added responsibility of the people depending on them. Money is sent back home to Jordan, Lebanon, where Hiyajneh immigrated from 30 years ago. People in El Salvador, Palestine, Guatemala, and Syria also receive money from Yallah, as the pandemic has put millions out of work. 

“In our business, we like to get back to our community, you know what I’m saying?” Hiyajneh said. “It’s not your money, it’s God’s money, you just know how to distribute it and help people out with it. It will always come back to us in tenfold.”

Hiyajneh, like many, sees a wide-spread vaccine as the solution to his business’ losses. 

“People are not gonna be comfortable going out until we have the vaccination. Nobody knows what to do. I mean, that’s the whole problem, when you have a lack of leadership,” Hiyajneh said. “I came to America with $400 in my pocket. Complaining is not in my vocabulary. But sometimes, you have to assess your risk.”

Lupita’s

16-year-old Melvin Lopez still remembers going to construction sites with his parents and selling Mexican food out of the back of their car for over 10 years before Lupita’s opened. During the summers, his day started at 5 a.m., cooking, getting to the construction sites by 12, and trying to sell all their food. Now located inside the Uni-Mart on College Ave., Lupita’s is a far cry from a car trunk, but Lopez can still be found helping out. 

Unlike many businesses in State College, Lupita’s doesn’t depend on Penn State students because of their location outside of downtown. However, customers and sales still shrunk as residents grew cautious of the quickly spreading pandemic. At their lowest, revenue was at 30-40% of what it usually had been. 

“We made just enough to cover the bills and it was a tough time,” Lopez said. “Everything was expensive because the price of things didn’t go down, but the money we were making did.”

Aside from monetary losses, the sanitization changes Lupita’s had to make proved difficult. Even after getting used to them, masks are still a big issue due to greasy, oily, and hot conditions. Fortunately, sales are nearly back to normal and Lupita’s has been able to cover all their expenses. 

To Lopez and his parents, the business means everything. 

“It’s hard to say what something means to you. It’s hard to say what an emotion feels like. The thrill of just coming in and seeing how many people come for lunch, it’s crazy,” he said. “Say you cook something for somebody, and they say, ‘ew, this is disgusting.’ You’d feel bad, right? I think it’d break my mom’s heart if somebody said it was disgusting.”

Whether he’s frying, cooking, serving, or working the cash register, Lopez appreciates every customer that comes in. 

 

Kaarma Indian Cuisine 

Halal restaurant Kaarma Indian Cuisine opened 15 years ago, and while it isn’t new, its owner is. Ekaterina Yakhina has made monthly payments for the last two and a half years to buy the restaurant herself. Just a few months ago, amid the pandemic, the restaurant became hers. Her husband, the chef, has been working at Kaarma for 10 years, and now that it’s theirs, they plan to make it their own. Soon to be renamed “Masala Place,” the restaurant is a huge part of their life.

As COVID-19 took its place in State College, the buffet at Kaarma proved the most difficult to adapt to pandemic life. While the buffet, a large part of the restaurant, is still closed, dine-in seating in small numbers has begun to restart. 

“It definitely went down,” Yakhina said, explaining the shift in revenue, “but we’re a strong family. We just finished paying for the restaurant, which is a big expense covered.”

Aside from the responsibilities of business owning, family life never stops. 

“I used to go to the restaurant a lot with my baby there because we don’t have childcare,” Yakhina said. “I brought them there, but with COVID and everything, I was home a lot. I did other things that I could do from home to help the restaurant. The family just had to pull together, work hard, you know? I wish I could help more.”

Even as Penn State students returned, revenue is still down due to the lack of buffet. “If COVID hopefully goes down, God willing, Mashallah, we’ll get better,” she said. 

For Ramadan this year, Yakhina was able to make food for locals breaking their fast, which helped business. While the downstairs floor of Kaarma is used for working, the upstairs floor has been reserved for giving help to the elderly.

“We try to help the community because I always believe when you try to do good things, good things also come back to you, whether you know it or not,” Yakhina said. 

Rey Azteca

As a staple in State College for Mexican food, Rey Azteca has a loyal customer base. Even as businesses and their customers everywhere struggled, Rey Azteca found support in State College. Jonathan Palacios’ family has been in the business for 25 years, and following tradition, he has been working for his family as the manager for the past 10. 

“Our goal, mainly, was to stay open for take-out and still give a good quality service and a good quality product for customers that have been and are still loyal with us. I’m not gonna lie, it was very scary for the first two weeks when the shutdown happened,” Palacios said. 

For the first two weeks of the shut down in March, Rey Azteca sold about $300 of food each day. In the end, opening up indoor dining at 50% capacity in June helped him more than takeouts or pickups ever did. A small business loan from the government also provided needed support. In the summertime, Palacios was far busier than he is now, following Penn State students’ return to campus. 

In the spring, when customers wanted to show support, Palacios saw an influx of gift cards being bought, some up to $200. As of now, his business is making about 60% of what it usually has in the past.

Palacios and his family also fear the possibility of contracting the virus. No entry without a mask and strict sanitization are precautions he takes to ensure he doesn’t get sick or get anyone else sick. Everyone in his family except himself and his wife have remained in quarantine.

“I’m still scared, to be honest,” Palacios said. “We’re gonna stay cautious and take care of our people, that’s all I can say.”

Since March, Palacios’ goal has remained the same: give good quality service of a good quality product. 

“You could say it’s a tradition to work for us, if you’re in the family, you’re gonna have to learn how to grind. It’s something that we take very seriously,” he said. “I don’t have words, how to explain it, but if they were closed and shut down, we would be very heartbroken.”

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For many, businesses and restaurants are much more than they seem. They’re family, they’re community, and they’re a lifeline. The idea of a falter in that lifeline, a tear in that fabric, can be heartbreaking. For State College business owners navigating spikes in COVID cases and low revenue, they’ve never depended on our community like this ever before. 

 

Correction: It has been brought to our attention that rather than having a second floor dedicated to helping the elderly, Kaarma tries to help the elderly that reside above their restaurant. We apologize for this error in our reporting. 

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