Sankar Reddy is the owner of Reddy Food N’ Spices in Toledo, which has been in operation in the Toledo region for 26 years.
Below is a transcript, edited for length and clarity, of a conversation between Mr. Reddy, Ruth Chang (creative director at Midstory), Samuel Chang (president at Midstory), Logan Sander (editorial director at Midstory) and Nathan Kummar, a customer at Mr. Reddy’s store, on February 16, 2023. The transcript is representative of a subjective and fluid conversation at a specific moment in time and should be read as such. This project also includes many individuals whose first language is not English; these transcripts prioritize the integrity of the interviewees’ expression over grammatical correctness. Midstory assumes no responsibility for any errors, omissions or inaccuracies.
Ruth Chang (RC): When did you move to the U.S.?
Sankar Reddy (SR): 1993, April 10.
RC: So prior to that?
SR: I was in India, and my brother was a physician in Toledo. And I came with the green card with the kids just to join him and for my kids for better education, better things. And ever since I’m old, I did not go anywhere else. I worked five, six years in Detroit. I was in IT and my wife used to run the store. This is the 26th anniversary we just celebrated on February 10th. So it’s [been] a long way.
We got a community grown and we’re having quite a bit of students come from India to the University of Toledo and [Bowling Green State University]. Recently, some people from the University of Tiffin. So, we get like a one-hour radius of people [coming] to the store and 40% of my clientele are Americans and students. It’s a unique product situation. We carry [a] very, very big variety and some of the products you don’t find anywhere else unless [it’s] another Indian store. So it’s a unique business.
And my prices are — nobody can compete with me. Because of the owner-operator we got low overheads. And we gave a very competitive price. For example, a couple instances, customers told me some health stores selling saffron. Saffron is the most expensive spice in the world. They’re selling half a gram for $11. I’m selling one full gram for $6.99. And spices and rice – they’re very competitive prices so that nobody can, you know, compete.
RC: When you have American customers come in, what do you recommend that they buy?
SR: The majority of [people] who come are already aware of [Indian cuisine]. People — customers— who don’t know, we educate them about the spices and what are the benefits of the spices, especially turmeric, which has a scientific name as curcumin, which has got amazing properties. It’s called a miracle spice. It’s got all anti-arthritis, anti-aging and anti-Alzheimer’s and better immune system, and it’s very cost-effective. You get seven ounces for three bucks. The same at another American big store is selling for 10 bucks. So a lot of variation. The good thing about it: Americans they’re very easy to convince and try the new stuff. They say “Hey, I’ll try it,” and they come back and say, “Oh my god, it was amazing.” And then they share the story with other people and friends and so it’s word of mouth. We do advertising a little bit, but it’s word of mouth and long staying in the community. So, that’s a big advantage for us.
RC: So how did you get started? What led you to start the grocery store?
SR: It’s when I immigrated. I had a business in India. I sold my business and the capital investment availability, then based on that one, I thought it might be a good start.
Was it difficult at the time in the ‘90s? What was it like starting in Ohio?
SR: My brother’s family’s here and the majority of them I know them. Students and university professors — they’re all talking it’s good to serve the community. We got a great temple; it’s called [Hindu Temple of Toledo on] King and Sylvania. People come every week to pray and on the way to the temple, we are located very close to the expressway, so that helped us.
And also the spices, as I said, it’s not that easy to find whatever you need. Basic few spices might be available in big stores but not all of them. I was told in one dish they used to use 100 spices — half of them are extinct now — back home and it’s called biryani. They can put chicken in it, or lamb or beef — you know that used to take 100 spices. So we don’t have any more right now, maybe like 20 – 25 available. All the curries, we make curry — chicken, beef, veggie or prawn shrimp. I know all of them will take a different kind of spice. And we got  states in India! So, every state has its own specialty dish. So, in the northern part, we use different spices, southern part different spices. It’s very, very different flavors, I would say.
RC: And where are you from?
SR: I’m from South India. My state is called Andhra Pradesh, which got divided into two states. It’s now Telangana and Andhra, but I belong to Andhra Pradesh. I speak Telugu. In my high school, I took Hindi as a second language, so that helped me for business and other stuff.
RC: When you’re here, how do you connect with other Indians?
SR: Through the temple, we do advertise. Some of the multinational companies, they put my name on their website. So, some people before coming to Toledo, they know about my store. Because Indians, wherever [they go] they want [Indian food]. I mean everybody — they love their food, right? So sometimes they will say, “If no Indian food, I’m not coming to Toledo.” So they’ll come and do small projects and go back to India. They will ask for it, “Is there an Indian store there?” And they will spread the word through their friends and we got three or four multinational world headquarters in Toledo. Companies like Anderson’s and First Solar, Owens Corning, Owens Illinois and some healthcare companies. A lot of Indian guys come as IT professionals, so they will spread the word: “Hey, you know I’m here, we got everything, so you can come.”
RC: Are people surprised to find such an authentic Indian business?
SR: A lot of times. And boys don’t [always] express, a couple of times I saw girls jumping around “Oh, I got this and my favorite food!” They were really excited about it: “Oh, it’s like in India!” They feel [they are] seeing all their own favorite products and the dishes and whatever spices. It happened so many times.
RC: So your first language is Telugu?
SR: Telugu. Hindi is a national language.
RC: When did you learn English?
SR: Thanks to the British when they ruled India, they took a lot of our wealth but they left the English, so now we’re thankful to them and also now our people are all over the world with the English.
RC: And so now you raise your family here, as well.
SR: Yeah, my kids were born in India. When my son was eight and my daughter was five years [old], we emigrated. And ever since we moved, we stayed in Toledo only. So it’s our hometown, whatever you can call it — this is our permanent home.
RC: And do your kids speak the language that you speak?
SR: My daughter is very fluent. My son, he speaks, but not as fluent
RC: Hindi or Telugu?
SR: Telugu. Unfortunately, they didn’t get a chance to learn Hindi because they came over here. And as I told you, I took it as a second language. I did my masters in Gujarat state, which they speak Gujarati. So I’m 50% to 60% Gujarati also. And the majority of the vendors are Gujarati, so that helped me to communicate sometimes.
Samuel Chang (SC): What is a day in the life for you? When you wake up in the morning, what’s your daily routine?
SR: Oh, I wake up and after the coffee/tea, I do meditation. I have an elliptical; I just did this morning 25 minutes and did some yoga. Yoga will help everyone to maintain your health system and balance of mind. I eat only chicken, not red meat. I prefer home food than going for the restaurant. I grew up in the village back home with organic food and I love to eat organic food as much as possible. Other than that, moderate exercise, I would prefer to do seven days, but at least I do five days for sure.
Logan Sander (LS): When do you come in?
SR: 11:30AM. We are open seven days, my wife helps me two days, and I work five days. But when you own your business, you’re dedicated 24/7. It’s not [like] my day is done. When you go home, you got to plan for the next day in what to order, what not to order. Hey, at the end of the day, I am a boss, so that makes me happy. I don’t have to be responsible to anyone, and I don’t want to get stress from others.
I enjoy my customers. 99% I’ve very, very great customers. I feel every day I want to make my customers happy. That’s my goal. So I try to educate them or whatever the way. And my wife is a great cook. So she gives the recipes to the customers and they come back, “Hey, that one came out very good. Thank you.” So, you know, we really, really enjoy it. And I raise kids with the business and [at the] end of the day, I’m very happy.
LS: Last time we were here, we were looking around and you had a number of customers come in who were all near you. And you were chatting about an event that night. Does having your store here bring a sense of community? Do you have relationships with a lot of your customers?
SR: Oh, yeah. It’s a very good relationship we have with the customer community. And as I said, we don’t treat them as a customer, we treat them as a family member. I get a customer — sometimes I’m busy with the counter and they say, “Hey, Mr. Reddy, I’m taking this one.” I don’t even know what they took. Then after a week, or whenever they come by, “Hey, I took this one. So I need to pay you.” Sometimes, I forgot to scan or by mistake, and [they say], “Hey, you know, usually I don’t check, but I check the invoice — you forgot to charge me for this one.” I’m blessed in this community. They never treat me as a regular businessman, they treat me like a family member. I’m very good friends with the CEO of the big, big companies. When compared to the CEOs of a multinational company, I’m not comparable at par. But they said, “No, no.” When we get out of the office or business, we are different, we are like a family. Oh, that’s a great thing about this community.
SR: Here is my very good customer — very loyal. So, you can interview him, too. They want to know about our community…
Nathan Kummar (NK): He [Sankar] has been a pillar of our community for a very long time. India is a complex country… he has to cater to the needs of a lot of people: North India, South India, East India. We all have our own different spices and the foods we like, but he caters to the demands of all the people, so that’s his beauty.