Back in the ’80s, Hillcroft Avenue in southwest Houston was pretty dead. The section closest to I-69 was home to a fast-food joint and an auto shop, but they sat near open farmland. Three stores stuck out in this undeveloped area of the city: a sari market, a jewelery shop, and a bakery. “Most Indian people, for any occasion—for any wedding, any anniversary, any party—they buy gold, they buy new Indian clothes, and they buy sweets,” said Sharan Gahunia, whose parents, Resham and Joginder, opened that bakery—Raja Sweets—in 1986. “Those were the three original businesses on Hillcroft, as far as Indian businesses go.” The owners of those three stores are often called the founding fathers of the Mahatma Gandhi District, the official name Houston Mayor Annise Parker gave the area in 2010, Gahunia said.
Nowadays, the cows are gone and several dozen Indian and Pakistani businesses have taken their place. The kids of those original “founding fathers”—Gahunia of Raja Sweets, Anant Patel of Karat 22, and Aakash Lulla of Sari Sapne—are today grown and helping run their families’ businesses. Patel’s parents started theirs out of a Hallmark store in North Houston, taking displays of gold and necklaces around to fairs and motels in small towns across the South. Over the past three decades, their original space has gone through two renovations, growing to several times its original size and picking up marble statues and dark wood-paneled walls along the way. Similarly, Sari Sapne is now one of five stores owned by the Lulla family. They sell everything from vegetarian food to electronics that work with India’s 240-volt circuitry.