A taste of home for Indian international students

An Indian food shop on Simcoe Street has become a home away from home for many Indian students studying in Peterborough

When Vedanti Ghatwala first arrived in Peterborough in the fall of 2018 to study at Trent University, she felt homesick. Ghatwala, who majors in biology, is from Gujarat, a state in India on the country’s northwest border.

“The first couple months that I was here it was very difficult,” Ghatwala says. One thing she missed about home was the food. While she found a few grocery stores in Peterborough with Indian sections, Ghatwala wasn’t satisfied by them. The selection was too limited and the quality too poor, she says. She remembers wishing that someone would open a store in Peterborough dedicated entirely to selling Indian food.

What Ghatwala didn’t realize was that a group of Indian students at Fleming College felt the same way, and were planning to open just such a store. When Ghatwala returned to Peterborough for her second year last fall, she found the new business open on Simcoe Street: Indian Peacock.

You may have walked right by Indian Peacock; its storefront (across from the downtown bus terminal) is easy to miss. But inside, the small store is inviting and the staff are welcoming. And over the past year, Indian Peacock has become a home away from home for many of the Indian international students who study in Peterborough.

It’s a community that is growing quickly. According to Drew Van Parys, the college’s vice president of economic and community development, 1,800 Indian students enrolled at Fleming College in 2019. That’s five times higher than the 350 Indian students who enrolled in 2014. There is an Indian student community at Trent University as well, though it is not as big.

For Ghatwala, Indian Peacock was just what she was looking for. “Having something that is from back home makes you feel more comfortable and more in place,” she says.

“Awesome customer service and care,” Ghatwala wrote in an online review of the store recently, one of dozens of glowing evaluations Indian Peacock has received online. “I feel home! All my needs are completed,” exclaimed one reviewer. “Literally reminded me of India,” another wrote.

The exterior of Indian Peacock.
Indian Peacock is right across the street from the Simcoe Street bus terminal, which is convenient for students on their way to and from classes, says owner Arun Khera. (Photo: Will Pearson)

Indian Peacock is owned and operated by the Khera family. Aruneek Khera, a wireless information networking student at Fleming College, had the idea for the store along with his friends. They were struggling to find affordable Indian food in Peterborough, and sometimes they drove all the way to Scarborough or Brampton just to buy some.

The friends wanted to open their own Indian food store. But as Aruneek tells me, a similar business opened in Peterborough a couple of years ago and was unsuccessful, and that made the friends think twice about taking the risk.

So Aruneek told his parents, Arun and Monica, who were living in India, about the problem, and they were moved to help out. Arun made a few trips to Peterborough to set things up, and the store opened last summer. Both Aruneek and his brother, Ani, work the front counter, along with other students who work there occasionally.

For Arun and Monica, Indian Peacock is something of a philanthropic enterprise. “It’s not a matter of making profits from the store,” Arun says, “but to serve the people.”

“Most of the students are so busy in their studies they find it difficult to nourish themselves,” says Monica. “This troubled us a lot.” Monica also points out that international students, who often pay more than triple the tuition that domestic students pay, tend to have limited budgets, and so the store needs to keep its prices low.

Indian Peacock sells grocery staples like spices, rice and snack foods. They also sell pre-cooked meals sourced from Indian restaurants and caterers in the GTA. These relatively inexpensive, pre-cooked meals are what really set the store apart, students say. With the store located right across from the bus terminal, students can order food by phone or WhatsApp and pick it up on the way to or from school.

Since Indian Peacock opened, Arun and Monica have come to Peterborough on short trips to visit their sons and help with the business. In March, a short visit turned into a long one when COVID-19 travel restrictions meant they had to stay in Peterborough. The family has been living and working together since March.

It’s clear that Monica and Arun are enjoying the extended visit, and the opportunity to meet more students. “We are enjoying it,” says Monica. “It’s like serving our own kids.”

The Kheras are “really friendly,” says Inderpreet Bhasin, a Fleming business student from India who is a director of the Fleming Student Administrative Council, the college’s student government. They are “very sweet to the customers because they know they are students who are missing their families. So they provide that family feeling and a welcoming gesture. It forms a great bond between us and them.” Bhasin used to work as a security guard at the bus terminal, and would call Indian Peacock to have food delivered to him from across the street.

“The customer service is a really big part of their success,” agrees Vedanti Ghatwala. “I don’t find that anywhere else.”

Ani Khera prepares a takeout order for Vrinda Vrinda, a Fleming business student from Haryana, India. “I love this store very much,” says Vrinda. “It feels like home.” (Photo: Will Pearson)

While Indian Peacock was originally intended as a store serving Indian students, the Kheras tell me that Canadians are starting to notice the store as well, which the family is excited about.

“Our goal is to teach the local citizens” about spices and the basics of Indian cooking, says Arun, adding that he wants to host a workshop about the properties of Indian spices at the public library when it reopens. 

This article was adapted from a Peterborough Currents email newsletter that was sent to our subscribers on June 18, 2020. To read the original newsletter, click here.

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