He also took the opportunity to spoil his kids. “Whatever we wanted, my father never said no,” says Tariq, who became the envy of his high-school classmates when, in his senior year, he started driving a Cadillac Eldorado. “Tahir used to have a Mercedes-Benz. He was the lavish one.” Tahir, the second youngest, agrees. “Good shoes. Good clothing. I was buying shoes at Barneys, Saks Fifth Avenue. Three, four times I would go to England to do shopping there,” he says. “When we had it, I did it. Why not?”
In the years after the Hamid family came to America, the city’s Indian population exploded; by 1990, it had reached nearly 100,000. The boom had fueled Shaheen Sweets’ rapid growth, of course, but it also brought competition. The city was now home to many, many other immigrants who were starting their own Indian restaurants and manufacturing their own sweets. By the early nineties, the family had begun to learn that, as hard won as their success was, it would be even harder to hold on to.
First, Salam lost his restaurant at Lexington and 27th. So many competitors had sprouted up in Manhattan’s Little India that the lines outside his restaurant had disappeared. But his main problem was the real-estate market. He had bought the restaurant’s building near the height of the eighties real-estate boom for $1 million, but by 1990 he was told it was worth only $400,000. “Our loan came due, and the bank refused to renew it,” he says. “It went into foreclosure. In 1993, it was auctioned off on the block.” Salam also lost a quarter-million dollars when the stock market tanked in 1987. At age 40, he went bankrupt. “I lost my house, I lost my building, I lost everything,” he says. Eventually, he borrowed money from his brother Momin to buy a restaurant in Baltimore and start over.
By 2001, Momin was the one in trouble. The city’s Indian population had climbed to 206,228 the previous year—more than doubling over the prior decade—and Momin could count 26 Indian restaurants in the four-block area surrounding his restaurant, Shaheen’s Palace. There wasn’t enough business to go around. Shaheen’s Palace closed that year. Momin left the family business altogether and became an inspector at the City Department of Health.
“We could’ve been an empire,” says Tariq. “We could have handed out franchises left and right.”
The only Shaheen branch left in the city was on the corner of 72nd Street and Broadway in Jackson Heights. This 3,600-square-foot building housed the sweets business, a restaurant on the first floor, and a catering hall in the back. A decade earlier, Abdul had handed over this branch to his youngest son, Tariq, as a wedding gift. Abdul and Tariq continued to go to work every day, but even the company flagship was struggling.
In the months after 9/11, sales plunged. Nobody was in the mood to buy sweets. “Business was slow, animosity was high, and everyone was scared to go out,” Tariq says. One of their employees, 55-year-old Muhammad Rafiq Butt, stopped coming to work. It took a while to figure out what happened, but eventually they learned that he was in jail in New Jersey, one of hundreds of people swept up in the aftermath of 9/11. The INS had detained him because his visitor’s visa had run out. He barely spoke English. Thirty-three days after he was taken into custody, he had a heart attack and died in his cell.
The fear and anxiety eventually began to dissipate, and the sweets business picked up again, but it was impossible not to be plagued by thoughts of what might have been. “We could’ve been an empire,” Tariq says. “We could have handed out franchises left and right.” His older brother, Tahir, who today drives a 2002 Toyota Camry instead of a Mercedes, says, “Because we were first and we were the biggest, today we could’ve had a billion dollars.”
Everyone has their opinions about what went wrong. Tahir puts some of the blame on disloyal employees—sweets chefs his father trained, who then left the company to work for its competitors. “They diluted the whole business,” he says. Tariq says he and his brothers bear much of the responsibility: “We got into conflicts with each other, and everybody started splitting apart. That’s when the whole world … took advantage.”
But nobody seems more haunted by the missed opportunities of the past than Abdul. On a recent evening, he sits at his dining-room table in Forest Hills Gardens, in the same house he bought 26 years ago. He lives here with his wife, Tariq, and Tariq’s family. At the moment, Tariq’s two children are in the living room, each facing a different screen: Ten-year-old Anoosha is logged on to Club Penguin on the computer, while 14-year-old Taimur plays Major League Baseball on the television. A photograph of Hadhrat Mirza Tahir Ahmad, the former leader of the Ahmadiyya Muslim community, hangs on the wall above the television.