From Surat to San Francisco: How the Patels Started the Hospitality Business

By VEN PARAMESWARAN

One of America’s main economic engines, the The American hotel industry, generates 1,200 billion dollars in turnover, 3 million jobs, 395 billion dollars in wages and 659 billion dollars in GDP. The Gujarati Patels, who have a dominant presence in the hospitality landscape, contribute substantially to the above economic values.

Mahendra K. Doshi’s recently published book, ‘Surat to San Francisco: How the Patels from Gujarat Established the Hotel Business in California 1942-1960,’ [Hardcover, 338 pages, $39.95 by Trailblazers Publishing (www.patelhotelhistory.com), San Jose, Ca.]does an excellent historical analysis of how the Patels of Gujarat founded the Patel hotel business in 1942 and then expanded and consolidated it by introducing over 30 Patels to the Mission District of San Francisco by renting single occupancy hotels (“ORS”) cheap.

Patel Founders – Top Right – D. Lal, Bottom Left – Nanalal Patel and Bottom Right – Kanji Manchhu Desai

To my knowledge, this is the first book that traces the history of the Patel Hotel. Doshi should be admired for relying on the oral accounts of around 160 people. The book quotes the daughters of a Patel pioneer, Pushpa and Urmila Patel, “The book gives voice to those pioneers who are no longer with us, like our father, Ambalal Parbhu, whose stories will inspire our children.”

Doshi traces the genesis of the Patel Motel business beginning with three founders of Patel, all illegal farm workers, who took over a small, dilapidated ORS from a Japanese lady, who was forced to report to the internment camp during the Second World War. The Ford Hotel on 6th Street became the first Patel-operated hotel in America. Sacramento became the birthplace of a serendipitous phenomenon for hosting company Patel, the likes of which have not been seen since. The accidental hotelier, Kanji Manchhu Desai, saw it as a way to settle his compatriots.

Author Mahendra K. Doshi

In 1955 Desai moved to England, but the expansion of the Patel Hotel continued, led by Surati Patels, Bhula Vanmali Patel, Dahya Ratanji Patel, Dhanji Vakil Patel and 6 Khatris who came under the Luce-Celler Act which should be considered the defining moment in the Patels’ hospitality history as they continued to develop the hotel business, eventually buying instead of renting. By 1960, Patels had moved into motel operations not just in the Bay Area, but across the United States. There was a mad rush to get into the business with the arrival of new Patels under Walter McCarran law and the upheaval caused by Idi Amin in Africa that forced many to seek a livelihood in America.

Today the Patels are a dominant force in the business, their voice there is unmatched, their presence ubiquitous and their earnings in the billions, thanks to the 3 farmhands who changed the trajectory of how the Patels would make a living by America.

Hotel Perramont

Doshi’s book is a must read not only for hospitality professionals, but also for those who follow our diasporic history. It not only has over 150 pictures of the hoteliers and their wives but also some interesting anecdotes about the early Gujaratis and Patels.

Very few know that Haridas Thakordas Muzumdar, whom many Bengalis considered their own, was a Gujarati from Mahuva and an ardent Gandhian, and the first Republican Indian to run for a congressional seat in Iowa in 1956. A Gujarati firebrand created chaos for Canada. Govt. in Vancouver in 1911-1917. It was Chhagan Kheraj Verma from Porbandar.

(Parameswaran graduated from Columbia University. He lives in Scarsdale, NY.)

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