Abdul continued to work his two jobs, making sweets in the hours between his McDonald’s shift and his start time at the bank. At night, Salam and his brother Momin would pick up where he left off. They’d arrive home at 10 or 11 p.m., after school and work, to find a tub of fried chickpea kernels in the kitchen, next to a note: “You have to make these ladoos by the morning.” They’d stay up until 2 or 3 a.m. watching Westerns on TV and rolling the fried dough into perfectly round balls. The two teenagers never really had much of a choice in the matter. Salam still remembers what happened the day he asked his father if he could go out with his friends instead of working in the kitchen. “He picked up the rolling pin … and came toward me,” Salam recalls. “He said, ‘Remember one thing: I’m going to make this a success. And just like Macy’s, my company will be known!’ ”
For Abdul, there was more than one benefit to putting his children to work. The more hours they spent in the shop, the less time they had to hang out with—and be influenced by—their American friends. When Abdul had arrived in New York, the sight of couples kissing in public had appalled him; he made a point of always looking away. The family prayed together every night, and went to the mosque most Fridays and Sundays, but still he worried that American culture would undermine his children’s strict religious beliefs. At first, he was even concerned about sending his daughter to public school. “He didn’t want my sister to go because it was mixed classes,” says Salam. “I told my dad: ‘Listen, Dad, if she doesn’t go to school, I’ll call the police.’ ” Salam prevailed.
Even Tariq, the youngest, caused an uproar when he came home from school and announced that his third-grade class was learning how to dance. Boys and girls dancing together? Abdul’s nephew, the only family member who was proficient in English, went to school the next day and explained to the teacher that Tariq was not allowed to participate. “It’s against our religion,” he said. While his classmates practiced dancing together, Tariq sat in the back of the auditorium and watched. “It felt embarrassing,” he says. It was hard enough just being the only South Asian kid in the class. “Nobody knew what a Muslim was,” he recalls. “Nobody knew where Pakistan was.”
In the spring of 1973, Abdul Hamid and his sons opened a small store just off Woodside Avenue in Elmhurst, a dozen blocks from their home. They promoted it as the city’s first Indian-Pakistani sweetshop and called it Shaheen Sweets. But in truth, it wasn’t much of a store—really a converted garage, 400 square feet, attached to an apartment building. The monthly rent was $175. The leader of the family’s mosque came to bless the kitchen, but the business did not have an auspicious start. The first day drew only one customer, and she bought just one sweet. Total sales: 25 cents.
But news of the opening of Shaheen Sweets spread along the immigrant grapevine. It helped that the couple who ran the sari shop around the corner made a point of steering customers their way. As business improved, Abdul quit both of his jobs and worked full time in the kitchen. Six months after the shop opened, Shaheen Sweets was bringing in around $300 a day—almost $100,000 a year. Abdul started thinking about expanding.
His son Salam opened the first Shaheen restaurant, at Lexington Avenue and 27th Street, in 1976. “Being the very first Indian-Pakistani fast-food restaurant in New York, we became famous like crazy,” he says. “At 9:30, the line would start outside. By the time we opened at 10 a.m., there were at least 30 or 40 people.” The family then opened two restaurants in Jackson Heights; Momin, the second son, ran Shaheen’s Palace on 37th Avenue. “I had a three-hour wait to get a table,” he says.
By the mid-eighties, Shaheen Sweets was not quite Macy’s, but it had become a household name among the city’s South Asians. The company manufactured more than 25 types of sweets and supplied some 500 grocery stores nationwide. “I go up, up, up,” Abdul recalls. “We have 80 people. We have two kitchens. I worked day and night. Sometimes I work 36 hours.” Some days, he’d sleep in a corner of the kitchen, using a grocery bag as his pillow. “I spend my whole life at work, and that’s it.”
It was the sort of trajectory every immigrant entrepreneur dreams of, and soon Abdul had amassed enough money to buy a house in one of Queens’ most expensive neighborhoods: Forest Hills Gardens. The family’s new home had three stories, five bedrooms, three baths, and a backyard. At age 54, thirteen years after coming to the United States, Abdul had achieved the American dream, New York style.