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The long road to success: How Oak Tree Road in Woodbridge became an example of cultural-based commerce

With dozens of businesses owned and operated almost exclusively by immigrants from India and Pakistan, it would be easy to say Oak Tree Road in the Iselin section of Woodbridge is perhaps the greatest example of diversity-driven commerce in the state.

Here’s another way to describe it:

With rents now approaching those asked in New York City — average asking rates that are often four times what one would find in townships similar to that of Woodbridge — Oak Tree Road is one of the top commercial districts in the state.

Its owners just happen to be almost exclusively from India and Pakistan. It’s a fact that is not lost on them.

Praful Patel, who operates the Indian fashion store Sahil, said he wouldn’t dream of moving to locations outside Oak Tree Road because he sees the benefits of being in such a homogeneous commercial district.

Patel caters to a niche market, providing trendy clothing worn for special occasions such as Indian weddings or, nowadays, prom night outfits for an American crowd. And while more than just the Indian and Pakistani population frequent his store, he knows his business wouldn’t do well if it was in an independent location.

Hot centers of commerce
Pockets of ethnic minorities are not unique to New Jersey, but the experience they offer when there is a concentration of businesses is unique, according to Vince Baglivo.
Baglivo is a spokesman for the Ironbound Improvement District in Newark, where there are hundreds of Brazilian, Portuguese and Spanish businesses.
“People say you can find anything in New York (City) — it’s the city of the world,” Baglivo said. “What it doesn’t have is an Iberian neighborhood.”
While the city does have restaurants and businesses, it doesn’t have a whole mile-long district with hundreds of merchants like Newark does, he said.
Luis Nogueira, broker of record for Lucky Realty, said a typical 1,500-square-foot store will rent for about $25 per square foot. This is down from 10 years ago, before the economic recession, when the rent was as high as $40 per square foot.
Baglivo said the Ironbound has had many identities over the years. It has been Italian, German and Jewish, and it has evolved with each wave of immigrants.
But it isn’t the only stronghold in the state. Others business concentrations include: Hispanics in Union City; Indians in Jersey City; Koreans in Fort Lee; Peruvians in Paterson; Colombians in Elizabeth; and Turks in Clifton.
Those are among many other examples. And Baglivo said the benefit of such strong pockets are the economic vitality they bring to the neighborhoods.
“They create a welcome committee, if you will,” he said. “It’s a lot harder to go where you don’t know anyone to help you find work or a place to live (as a new immigrant). It’s not uncommon for people of a certain ethnic orientation to find their way to a place and put down roots … and people will follow.”
“What it has done for the Ironbound is created an identity — a brand, almost — for our district. We are recognized as part of Newark, but as a distinctive part with a distinct culture. People go to (Walt Disney’s) Epcot in Florida to seek an experience like the French or British Pavilion. When they visit the Ironbound, they get a firsthand look at a different culture.”

“Every single business you see is a small business, it’s a family business, and the ones who have been around for 20 (to) 25 years are doing extremely well,” said Umang Swali, a real estate agent for Keller Williams Commercial.

It wasn’t always that way.

Longtime merchants remember a different era.

More than two decades ago, Oak Tree Road was lined with bars and all but abandoned after 7 p.m. There was no foot traffic and motorcycle gangs roamed the streets.

Chandrakant Patel, owner of restaurant and snack shop Chowpatty Foods, recalls how rough the neighborhood was when he first opened in the neighborhood in the 1980s.

He and other business owners said they used to have water splashed on them as they walked, windows of their stores constantly broken, plus heavy vandalism and the fear of the strong presence of a motorcycle gang.

It was so bad that even longtime residents avoided being out late, Patel said.

In the early 1990s, Patel and others recall banding together to present their frustrations before the Woodbridge township council and ask for help in controlling the vandalism. That worked, and soon the Indian Business Association was born.

As was the special improvement district — the fruits of their labor when approaching the township — which is funded by additional property tax assessments on the businesses.

“The Oak Tree Road Special Improvement District was created in 1991 by ordinance with the purpose of securing additional parking for the business district along Oak Tree Road between Route 27 and Wood Avenue,” reads the township’s website. “Expenses for the Special Improvement District are paid by assessment of all properties identified in said district.”

That step by the township helped to slowly but surely increase the population of South Asians as well as the businesses, Patel said.

Praful Patel, owner of Sahil, an Indian fashion store in the Iselin section of Woodbridge.
Praful Patel, owner of Sahil, an Indian fashion store in the Iselin section of Woodbridge. - ()

While the nation continues to battle racial tensions and the business community is ever-evolving in efforts to be more inclusive of a diverse workforce, the businesses on Oak Tree Road have prospered with their “strength in numbers” mentality.

Patel’s restaurant is now one of at least 75 in the area and foot traffic on the street during weekends is a major contributor to business.

But in recent years, there have been barriers to development, Swali said. This has resulted in a spread of the businesses out from Woodbridge and into areas like Sayreville, Piscataway, South Brunswick, North Brunswick, Franklin Park and Jersey City.

The businesses on Oak Tree Road, however, continue to thrive.

A currently available 2,600-square-foot property is listed for nearly $1.6 million. That is roughly four times the amount it would be in an average New Jersey township, Swali said. By comparison, depending on where you look in New York City, prices can be six to eight times the normal rent for an average New Jersey township.

A recent new business, Preet Jewelers, moved in after 22 years in Jackson Heights in New York.

“This market was nothing when we opened our store (in Jackson Heights) in 1997,” said Dolly Singh, who owns the store with her husband, Balbir Singh.

“This was a bad area. Even American people would not be here after 7 p.m. Now this area is as expensive as Manhattan.”
Chandrakant Patel, owner, Chowpatty Foods

They moved to New Jersey last year because the prime Indian business area in Queens is now overrun by Bangladeshi-owned businesses. This has upset the market and created a demand for lower-priced goods, Singh said.

The converse is true for Oak Tree Road, which is highly competitive for higher-priced and quality products, Singh said.

The businesses now see customers of every ethnicity and draw from around the Northeast, mid-Atlantic, West Coast and California — the same customers Singh said she used to have in Jackson Heights before the change in the market.

Though the customer base is diverse, there is a clear homogeneity of business owners and staff. Staff are mostly Indian or Pakistani, with a few Hispanics.

Which leads to a different issue: The irony surrounding the success of this diverse marketplace is that it isn’t very diverse when it comes to its own hiring practices.

Dolly Singh, owner of Preet Jewelers in the Iselin section of Woodbridge.
Dolly Singh, owner of Preet Jewelers in the Iselin section of Woodbridge. - ()

Asked why, Chandrakant Patel said language and cultural barriers prevent diverse hiring. But he does employ a diverse serving staff for his catering events.

“When you are talking about (minority business), our products are a specialty. Whoever knows about these things can do the job,” he said. “We have help from all backgrounds when we cater. But when it comes to day-to-day, it’s difficult.”

Praful Patel said he would happily hire a diverse work force, but the language barrier would pose a problem.

“We would be happy to hire any people for work, but they (would) not be comfortable to work here,” he said.

E-mail to: anjaleek@njbiz.com
On Twitter: @anjkhem

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