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Truck stops cater to growing number of immigrant drivers

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Co-owners Vamsi Yaramaka (left) and Raj Alturu stand inside Eat Spice on Oct. 24, in the truck stop on Route 534 off I-80 in White Haven, Pa. The restaurant caters to members of the Sikh community. For them, Indian and Mediterranean dishes can be hard to find on the road.
Co-owners Vamsi Yaramaka (left) and Raj Alturu stand inside Eat Spice on Oct. 24, in the truck stop on Route 534 off I-80 in White Haven, Pa. The restaurant caters to members of the Sikh community. For them, Indian and Mediterranean dishes can be hard to find on the road.
Matt Smith

Truck driver Aman Singh, 30, must traverse the 660 miles from northeastern Pennsylvania to Louisville, Ky., on an overnight drive. Before he saddles up for the long haul, he settles into a booth at Eat Spice, a truck stop/Indian restaurant off I-80 in Luzerne County, Pa., with a plate of chicken curry and a stack of roti.

"I've tried American food too," he says, before a long pause. "But mostly I don't like it."

Singh came to the United States from New Delhi and says he's not used to all of the frozen and processed food options in the United States.

Eat Spice caters to a unique intersection: where rural America meets an increasingly diverse cadre of truckers looking for a taste of home as they jockey between warehouses and retail outlets.

Located in White Haven, Pa., population 1,100, the truck stop has a clientele that's more likely to hail from immigrant enclaves in Ohio and Michigan than the surrounding town, which is 96% white. Here, the cooler of live bait coexists with the carafe of homemade chai. In the fridge, there's both Red Bull and mango lassi. Your choice.

Sam Singh, 27, drives between Flint, Mich., and northern New Jersey every other day. He stops at Eat Spice for meals during nearly every 10- to 12-hour trip.

"We like Eat Spice. Everything [is] Indian food," says Singh, listing his favorites. "Chicken biryani, goat biryani, chicken saag, butter chicken, egg bhurji, paneer something. Everything."

The number of long-haul truckers in the U.S. is at an all-time high, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, and the demographics of who is behind the wheel are shifting. While the average trucker is a 46-year-old white male, a growing proportion of drivers younger than 35 are women, Latinx or from another country.

Immigrants from northern and western India, such as Singh, have flocked to the trucking industry.

Many of the early adopters follow Sikhism and came in the late 1980s after fleeing ethnic violence in India, according to Gurinder Singh Khalsa, a Sikh community activist in Indiana.

"They came out of the country to save their lives," he said, often fleeing before being able to go to college or acquire job skills.

Devout Sikhs may wear their hair long and wrapped in a turban, a look that was not always welcome on U.S. job sites, according to Khalsa.

"In any entry-level job, they were getting [a] hard time," he said. "Either they could work at the factories, or they could do something independent." So many turned to trucking.

He estimates that 150,000 of the 3.5 million truckers in the U.S. are from northern and western India, although Pennsylvania public media collaboration Keystone Crossroads was unable to verify that number.

Pay is another draw. Somali driver Farhan Warsame says he makes significantly more driving his own rig now than he did in his old job, working warehouses in Kentucky.

"I make a week, the money I used to make before... [in] a whole month," he says. "I make $1,200."

Regular clients fuel the interstate economy, which is why Indian restaurants have been popping up at truck stops along major shipping routes in the United States. There are at least 24 in the country, and two in Pennsylvania, according to the Los Angeles Times.

Besides Eat Spice, Shahi Dhaba is located off I-81 in Carlisle, Pa.

Steve Emery, who's white, is another regular at Eat Spice. The 62-year-old trucker wears a Van Halen T-shirt and stands by the counter. He's hungry after hauling a load of retail clothing from Akron, Ohio, to New Jersey.

"I kind of had a taste for tuna today, but they didn't have it, so I went back to the old faithful," he says, selecting a meatball sub from the "American" portion of the menu. Emery has tried the biryani and says he liked it, but chose his comfort foods this visit.

Eat Spice owner Raj Alturu, who lives in Allentown, Pa., says he wants his business to be inclusive of everyone's appetites.

When he and his business partner, Vamsi Yaramaka, bought the restaurant/gas station/snack shop about seven years ago, it served sandwiches. As the customer base changed, they kept the hoagies and started adding new dishes.

"We're trying to update [the] menu when we get requests from customers," says Alturu. "Once people hit the road, it can be a day or two before they get home. ... At least like once a day or once every two days, you want to have the food you are accustomed to."

Take the spaghetti chicken curry. It's based on a Somali dish that a regular customer asked for.

A few minutes later, that regular walks in. Yousuf Dahar, 31, lives in Hopkins, Minn., and was born in Ethiopia to Somali parents.

He orders goat biryani, sits down and explains that all those hours sitting in the cab of his truck are catching up to him.

"I'm getting a little bit fat," he chuckles, grabbing his lower belly for emphasis. He says trucking isn't healthy work, but it pays the bills.

Average salaries for long-haul truckers are $43,252, but owner-operators, who use their own trucks, can make twice that amount. Across the board, the hours can be long in the industry, with nearly half of drivers working more than 40 hours a week, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Sean Yazici, who lives in Indiana, is an immigrant who has embraced the classic trucker look. He sports a cowboy hat, boots and a belt buckle the size of a saucer.

A first-timer at Eat Spice, he is excited about the shish kebab.

"I'm from another country, Turkey," says Yazici. For him, finding Mediterranean food at a truck stop feels like hitting the lottery.

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