The greasy spoon straddles the Pacific.

As much as I’d like to commend the efforts of Lady Bird Johnson, I have to confess: I love billboards. Maybe I’ve spent too much time living in parts of the country where the landscapes offer relatively little variety, and the billboards help compensate for monotony. But I also love the flattest, most treeless stretches of the Midwest as much as New Hampshire’s White Mountains or Utah’s moonscape. When the topography is rugged, I like seeing where the billboard companies have coyly planted their signage on hillsides, in order to maximize visibility. Yes, I know, those tacky signs often mar the purity and majesty of their surroundings, but billboards routinely come and go, and the scar of chopped foliage needs continual maintenance to remain that way; trees will inevitably grow back when a billboard retires. Places that outlaw billboards—the entire state of Vermont comes to mind—often seem to be missing something, even for those who cherish what the state lacks. The absence of billboards is a low murmuring voice across the landscape forced permanently into mute, and perhaps that’s why I defend them: the connoted message of an unadorned environment where nature speaks differently to everyone combines with the (usually) unambiguous denotations of giant words on a sign. This dichotomy between the inferred (nature) and the declared (advertising/commerce) generates a skittish rhythm when traveling, a tense semantic energy that helps keep the drive from getting boring. Having no billboards sometimes seems as sterile as the scene from the movie Brazil where the landscape only consists of billboards. Vermont might be happy to squelch the homogenizing ambitions of Clear Channel and other corporations, but it also stifles a sort of folk culture generated by the advertisements for attractions and enterprises unique to an area. Federally funded highway signs can’t replace that vernacular. Ms. Lady Bird Johnson has plenty of successors, and I hope the battle against billboard blight continues, just as I wish for the companies to fight back. The push-and-pull between the two should help keep them both in check, while individual states can continue to let their constituents use their individual laboratories of democracy to decide what billboard quotient is right for them.

And, thankfully, most of the rest of this post’s analysis won’t be as academic as that first paragraph, because that opener is almost a non-sequitur. Perhaps it’s a good thing I come from a state that seems to like billboards as much as I do. As anyone knows who has driven through Indiana (which seems be just about everybody), it’s filled with them. The Crossroads of America—no wonder. In a given day, hundreds of thousands of eyes will glance at these massive roadside advertisements. So there’s no reason that the billboard below, from the stretch of I-65 between Indianapolis and Louisville, should stand out to its hundreds of thousands of viewers each day:And, sure enough, it’s just an advertisement for a Motel 6, looking like any other. Except for that part about the Indian restaurant.

It doesn’t take a good pair of eyes to notice that, although the US has a sizable population that claims India as its country of origin, restaurants serving Indian food aren’t quite as commonplace as, say, Mexican or Chinese. You can expect to see Indian restaurants in affluent urban and suburban areas, downtowns of major cities, college towns, or neighborhoods with large concentrations of Indian immigrants—not off the side of a highway in rural Indiana. And not attached to a budget motel. It just hasn’t yet reached mainstream palates.

But that may only be indicative of a dormant trend. I investigated this particular motel/restaurant outside of the micropolitan area of Seymour, and I didn’t see any evidence of an Indian eatery from the outside appearance. I inquired with the manager on duty, and he said that the Indian restaurant had closed; in its place was a Mexican restaurant. So clearly this experiment in eclectic roadside cuisine failed. But I’m not convinced it was trying to appeal to the sort of traveler who typically patronizes Indian restaurants in fashionable areas of large cities or hip college towns. I think it was primarily attracting people who had grown up on the food—namely, Indian Americans and recent Indian immigrants.

I think two socioethnic phenomena are at play here in Seymour. No, this small southern Indiana city (pop. 18,000), though generally prosperous, is not suddenly attracting a large Indian immigrant community. I’d be surprised if there are more than two dozen persons of Indian descent in a thirty mile radius. But Seymour is a major pit stop for travelers, with an abundance of hotels, chain restaurants, and even an outlet mall (albeit not a very successful one). The concentration of hotels off the interstate should offer one clue: as I have noted in the past, the hotel industry has increasingly become dominated by Indian Americans, with nearly half of all hotels owned by persons of Indian descent, according to the Asian American Hotel Owners Association. While Indian ownership may still be uncommon among rural highway motels or downtown luxury suites, the budget franchise hotel—Sleep Inn, Days Inn, Super Eight, Motel 6—is dominated by Indian families, many of whom live on the premises. No doubt this Motel 6 in Seymour is within a stone’s throw of another Indian-owned hotel, or two, or three. The entirety of the Indian population of Seymour may be tied to the hospitality industry.

But that doesn’t explain the presence of an Indian restaurant, even if it’s now defunct. The statistical odds that a traveler seeking lodgings in Seymour is an Indian American is still reasonably small, and you’d think that real estate around an interstate exit ramp would attract cuisine of a more common denominator. After all, most of the other restaurants you see around Seymour are the same ones you might find at any rural interstate exit in America: McDonald’s, Arby’s, Subway, Burger King. Even a Chipotle (Mexican) or Panda Express (Chinese) might be too eclectic. But the owner of this Indian restaurant/hotel clearly thought he or she had a large enough demographic from which to draw, perhaps through curiosity seekers that appreciate ethnic cuisine, or Indian American motorists.

As farfetched as it may seem, the Motel 6’s proprietor took a reasonable gamble: not so far away, another roadside Indian restaurant is managing quite well. On the stretch of Interstate 70 in eastern Indiana, near the small town of Spiceland (about halfway between Indianapolis and Columbus OH), an Indian restaurant was fully operative when I visited in January of 2009. Apparently Taste of India/India Curry seems to have changed its name recently, but it was still in business as of last summer. It had the familiar smell of curry and various meats from the tandoor, but it didn’t look like a plush Indian restaurant you might see in downtown Chicago, or the more middlebrow Indian offerings along Devon Avenue north of the city center. It didn’t look like the sparsely decorated Indian restaurant you might see in a strip mall in the outskirts of Indianapolis, either. This Indian restaurant looked like a truck stop.

The above photo from the website Yelp makes it clearer: Taste of India really is a truck stop. And its principal clientele is truckers: Punjabi truckers. As referenced in the aforementioned blog post, a number of different immigrant groups have carved a niche within a certain profession. I have no doubt it started organically and grew from the first few successful entrepreneurs, but while many Indians from throughout this enormous polyglot eastern nation have cut their teeth in the hotel industry, Punjabi Indians—and Sikhs in particular—have made significant headway in trucking. The result, not so surprisingly, is a roadside economy that caters to a demographic that is only likely to grow in upcoming years—much the same way Indian-owned hotels have proliferated.

But this ethnic industry has left a visible fingerprint on the Midwest in more ways than just billboards. As itinerant as truckers may often be, they have to live somewhere, and it naturally follows that they would settle in cities with a robust logistics industry—more available jobs. Indianapolis in particular has asserted itself as a vast logistical hub, widely promoting its convergence of four interstate highways within the city limits. And, within the past decade, the very Middle American suburb of Greenwood, just south of Indianapolis, has become a bit of an enclave for Sikhs.

Two miles east of Greenwood’s main street, the suburbanization quickly reverts to cornfields, with newly emergent subdivisions interspersed between family farms. Although they are scattered across a number of new subdivisions in Greenwood, the Homecoming at University Park has attracted the highest concentration of Sikh families, outlined in purple on the map below:

Recent reports estimate that as many as 2500 Sikhs have moved to the southern suburbs of Indianapolis within the past five to seven years, often coming from California and attracted to Indiana by the low cost of housing and excellent school systems, among other things. It is possible that a particularly talented realtor who shares their cultural heritage has been instrumental in getting so many Sikh families to relocate; Ms. Sikand has retained on her website the Indianapolis Star article that first recognized the migration trends.

The attraction of Greenwood to Sikh families extends well beyond just the schools and housing, though. Notice that the Homecoming at University Park subdivision sits about a half mile east of Interstate 65. Immediately adjacent to the interstate—outlined in blue—the following businesses sprawl across former farmland.This is one of many distribution centers in the Indianapolis metro, and one of the biggest in Greenwood. And there’s plenty of room for more:Thus, the situation in Greenwood efficiently depicts a modern variant of the old work-home dichotomy, reconfigured at a lower density for the automobile age. As the pictures reveal, this layout isn’t really designed for walking to work, though there are quite a few sidewalks and the short distances would still make it feasible. And on the more urbanized western side of I-65, within the more established part of Greenwood city limits, tenants at the strip malls support this burgeoning demographic.

A mile north of these storefronts, just within the Indianapolis city limits, is a popular Indian restaurant, India Diner. And, since this is an ethnic group that largely defines itself by its shared religious background, it only follows that a house of worship would enter into the landscape. At the intersection of Graham Road and Allen Road (the red circle in the map) the local community has bought conventional private residence built in the 1980s and converted it into a gurdwara, the third Sikh house of worship in metro Indianapolis. The process of getting it approved by Greenwood Board of Zoning Appeals elicited a minor ripple a couple years ago, mostly because of fears of traffic along Graham, which at this point remains essentially a country road on the south side of its intersection with Allen Road. The BZA approved the request unanimously, no doubt taking into consideration the continued plans for the area to grow and urbanize, eventually necessitating an upgrade to Graham Road that will make the occasional traffic elicited by the gurdwara less of a problem.

While the Indian restaurant referenced in the Motel 6 billboard in Seymour is a thing of the past, I have no doubt that over time it will seem like less of a fluke, less a failed entrepreneurial endeavor, a one-shot deal. The successful Indian truck stop restaurant in Spiceland proves that such a seemingly unlikely venture can find a large enough clientele to succeed, even though the Indian population in rural Indiana will probably remain rarefied—isolated primarily to those economy hotels at the interstate exit ramp. Then again, like so many Indiana communities, Seymour, too, is home to a sizable logistical hub: a Wal-Mart distribution center stretches for what seems like miles on the other side of the interstate highway from the Motel 6. While it lacks the economic agglomeration power of a much larger city such as Indianapolis, Seymour does boast above-average representation in these two Indian dominated industries: trucking and hospitality. It may only be a matter of time before billboards advertising Indian truck stops are commonplace in Indiana (or elsewhere in the US), and it only foreshadows the steadily growing heterogeneity of the country that Indian cuisine may become as mainstream as it is in the UK—or as Chinese and Mexican already are. It would have been unthinkable to find these latter two cuisines fifty years anywhere outside of the largest American cities, and yet today a town can be a tenth the size of Seymour and still expect to have at least one of the two, if not both. Tandoori chicken may vie with country fried steak for trucker fare; they might even be served under the same roof.

8 thoughts on “The greasy spoon straddles the Pacific.

  1. Astara

    Interesting, Eric. I’d visited a pretty tasty Indian restaurant with my parents a while back, and I was shocked to find it on the southeast side of the Indianapolis/Greenwood. This may explain its seemingly unlikely presence.

    Reply
    1. AmericanDirt Post author

      Thanks for writing/reading Astara. Yeah, while it seems like the biggest concentration of Indian restaurants are on the west side (near the Lafayette Square Mall), I expect you’ll see more and more down in Greenwood before long as the Punjabi population grows. It might not ever be a Devon Avenue, but what is? (Aside from Devon Avenue, of course…)

      Reply
  2. Nici

    Billboards, honestly, I never thought much about them, until I read this post. Today, on my weekly 200 mile round trip to visit my grandfather, I really thought about them. What I decided was that I like them but only on the long stretches of empty roads. There they are informative (Best Western 11.5 miles, exit 134) entertaining (larger than life Chick-fil-a’s cows painting the billboard with “Eat Mor Chikin) and even folksy ( Billy Ray’s Gater Farm, Hold a live baby alligator and the ever famous Eat Here & Get Gas). To me they are part of America, part of who we are as a country. The space that they occupy on the side of the road is just as natural to the environment as the oak tree, row crop, etc. Before GPS’s, smart phones, internet, they were a traveler’s life line providing information on food and shelter, the basic necessities of life. Out west, the road is lonely and long, and billboards are defiantly a welcome sight. Now in the city, I have decided, I don’t like them. To me they are tacky, obnoxious, annoying and loud. What I mean by loud is, even though they are silent they somehow add to the “noise” of the city. I don’t know how to explain the “noise” except to say I don’t like it. Its funny how the same exact billboard can generate a different emotional response depending on it’s environment.

    While driving and thinking about billboards, I kept coming back to the famous Chick-fil-A billboards with the cows. I always thought they were hysterical ads, of course that might be because the cows and I pretty much are at the same level when it comes to spelling ( I would be so lost without spellcheck). The more I thought about them, I realized that I only really remember seeing billboard ads for Chick-fil-A. So I did a little digging and found that the Chick-fil-a cow advertising campaign has been one of the most successful in history and has won numerous awards. The company launched the campaign in 1995 and used billboards because it was a cheap method of advertising. The cheap advertising paid off, revenue has increased from 500 million in 1995 to 3 billion in 2009. Not a bad ROI if you ask me!

    So, in this world of smart phones, internet and 4.00 gallon gas has the billboard out lived its usefulness? Will it go the way of the pay phone and the rest area as antiquated parts of traveling? Personally, I don’t think so, at least not for a very long time. America is still the land of opportunity and Bebe and Daargee ( Punjabi for Mom and Pop) businesses will always be opening and they will need cheap advertising.

    I have thought about this post for days, trying to sort out all that I want to say. Being short and concise is defiantly not one of my strong points so I figured I would start from the top and work my way down. I had no idea I had this much to say about billboards and I know I have lots to say about Indians and trucking. So, I will have to ask you to be patient with me and my responses to the rest of your article. Once again, you have taken an ordinary over looked part of life and made it come alive. I can’t seem to tell you enough, this writing that you do is so important, it is such a gift. Keep writing and I will keep reading!

    Reply
  3. AmericanDirt

    Thanks as always for your comments, Nici, and don’t worry about length–clearly I can be long-winded sometimes too, and I’m happy to get any responses when I don’t have much of a means of promoting my blog here in Afghanistan, or an easy method for gathering new photographs/blog topics.

    Funny that you should mention Chick-fil-A as a model for billboard advertising, because you could be right. I don’t watch much TV, so I’m not sure how much they advertise these days through that medium, but it is a highly successful restaurant chain that has particularly grown in the last 10-15 years, and I suspect you’re right in that it depends far more heavily on billboards than other big fast food names–at least McDonald’s and Burger King. Subway, I know, uses billboards a lot, but that could also be because it is more commonplace at interstate exit ramps (particularly nestled inside gas stations) than McDonald’s. But, as Jared Fogle can attest, Subway is also pretty active with TV ads as well.

    Also interesting to me are the roadside establishments that may very well be franchises (or at least chains) but exist EXCLUSIVELY at interstate exist ramps. I think of the billboards for places such as Grandma’s or that southern classic, Stuckey’s. Are either of these establishments still around? I think they are, though much fewer in number now that McDonald’s, Burger King, Arby’s, Subway, Chick-fil-A have encroached on their turf.

    I also think a lot of people share your sentiment about billboards in urban areas, where they often become particularly cluttered. This is often very noticeable in low income neighborhoods, as well as (not surprisingly) the content of the billboards being very different–far more often for social services than for-profit businesses. But that is a subject for another blog topic.

    Reply
  4. Nici

    Funny you mention Stuckey’s as being exclusively found on exit ramps. When I picture billboards out west, that’s what I see, billboards for Stuckey’s. I’m not sure how the chain is fairing in the south but in the southwest (Interstate 40 through New Mexico & Arizona) they can be found every where. Along with being the only business at the exit, Stuckey’s out west has the draw of what I call being a tourist trap. Miles before you get to the exit the multiple bright yellow billboards announce things like handmade moccasins, authentic Indian jewelry, 3 t-shirts for 20.00, etc. I never really bought anything from these tourist traps but always loved window shopping and to be completely honest I stopped a lot of times just to look. So we have Stuckey’s, Grandma’s and Chick-fil-a but we left out the biggest and the best interstate exit/billboard only advertised restaurant in the country. There are 588 restaurants in 42 states all situated off the interstate. In fact, if you go to the company’s website, the restaurant was started to “better meet the needs of folks on the road”. In case you haven’t figured it out yet, this interstate phenomenon is Cracker Barrel. If you go into a Cracker Barrel store they will actually give you a map of the United States that shows the location of everyone of the stores, which all sit nicely on interstate exits. I have never seen Cracker Barrel advertised by any other method besides billboards, unless you count word of mouth. My last 6 months as a driver I spent on a dedicated run from Lancaster Ca to either Jackson Fl or Hazelton Pa. I was very proud of the fact that either run I could eat at a Cracker Barrel every day. That is harder than it sounds, due to Cracker Barrel not having big rig parking. But where there is a will there is a way.

    Now on to Indians, restaurants, motels and truck stops, I don’t even know where to begin. At first I thought the closed Indian restaurant on the billboard sign was just a bad mistake. How could two Indian restaurants survive in a small rural town? But then I thought maybe the other open restaurant was connected to the closed one? Any chance they could be the same owner just different location? Just a thought. What I have observed is that Indian immigrants do not eat out very often and when they do it is not in Indian restaurants. Restaurant food is still restaurant food and they are unwilling to pay for a lesser product. Same thing applies to me as a Cajun, I grew up eating my grandmother’s cooking and don’t eat out at Cajun or seafood restaurants as its just not as good as what I am used to. Immigrants especially older ones, view eating out as wasteful, its cheaper to eat a home and they understand the value and importance of saving money. There is one exception to this rule and you mentioned it earlier. Let me explain, Fresno Ca, has a huge population of Sikh’s, something around 30,000 Sikh’s live in the Central Valley of California and Fresno is the largest city in that area. I used to joke that I saw more Sikh’s in Fresno than I saw in Delhi. I often looked out my window to see several older Sikh’s walking around the neighborhood. In about a 2 mile radius of my home there were 3 Indian grocery stores. My point is there were a lot of Sikhs and I never saw them in restaurants, with one exception Panda Express. You know the food is good when you see an older Sikh with a turban and full beard waiting in line with you! There were several Indian restaurants in Fresno but again the clientele was mostly non Indian, with one exception, the Brahma Bull. It served excellent food but also it was a rarity as it served southern Indian food. Even then, I remember being in there when it was packed and only seeing one or two Indian customers.

    Now trucks stops and Indians that will have to wait as I am running out of space and time.

    Reply
  5. AmericanDirt

    Thanks again for your comments, Nici. The Stuckeys that you describe don’t resemble anything that I remember, but I can hardly talk, since I’ve never actually been to one. If they’re everywhere in the southwest, I probably wouldn’t know, since I haven’t spent a whole lot of time out there. But I believe you!

    And Cracker Barrel is a completely different story. Yes, I think you’re right–they’re always within a stone’s throw from an interstate, or at least a major limited access highway. It was clearly a strategy that they managed to work from the beginning, probably originally attracting southerners on long-distance travels. They are far more prominent than Grandma’s or Stuckey’s and attract far more than truckers or career motorists, as your difficulty in parking a big rig proves.

    Maybe my post wasn’t entirely clear in regards to the location. The Indian restaurant that was closed was attached to a hotel in Seymour Indiana, in the south part of the state not too far from Louisville. The clearly open Indian truck stop (with no associated hotel) was in eastern Indiana not too far from Richmond. Interesting what you’re saying about Indians not patronizing their own cuisine–most ethnic restaurants expect that people of that ancestry will be their core clientele (think about some of those Central American restaurants in New Orleans). I guess it’s an entirely different story with Indian restaurants. If they’re so dependent on non-Indians patronizing their establishments, it’s no wonder so many of them have to work extra hard to stay in business.

    Reply

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