Far from home, new wave of immigrant truckers find comfort food along Pa. highways

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Eat Spice co-owners Vamsi Yaramaka, left, and Raj Alturu stand inside at their truck stop on route 534 off I-80 in White Haven, Pennsylvania. The restaurant offers dishes that are hard to find amid typical American fast food fare. (Matt Smith for Keystone Crossroads)

Eat Spice co-owners Vamsi Yaramaka, left, and Raj Alturu stand inside at their truck stop on route 534 off I-80 in White Haven, Pennsylvania. The restaurant offers dishes that are hard to find amid typical American fast food fare. (Matt Smith for Keystone Crossroads)

By morning, truck driver Aman Singh, 30, must traverse the 660 miles from northeastern Pennsylvania to Louisville, Kentucky.

Before he saddles up for the 10-hour drive, he settles into a booth in Eat Spice, a truck stop/Indian restaurant off of I-80 in Luzerne County, with a plate of chicken curry and a stack of roti.

“I’ve tried American food, too,” he said, before a long pause. 

“But mostly I don’t like it.” 

Singh came to the United States from New Delhi, and said 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.

Here, the cooler of live bait coexists with the carafe of homemade chai tea. In the fridge, there’s both Red Bull and mango lassi. Your choice.

Located in White Haven, Pennsylvania, population 1,100, the truck stop’s clientele is more likely to hail from immigrant enclaves in Ohio and Michigan than the surrounding town, which is 96 percent white.

Sam Singh, 27, drives between Flint, Michigan 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,” said Singh, listing his favorites. “Chicken biryani, goat biryani, chicken saag, butter chicken, egg bhurji, paneer something. Everything.”

Sam Singh, left, of Michigan, and Arjan Singh, right, of New Jersey, find comfort in the Eat Spice menu. (Matt Smith for Keystone Crossroads)

The number of long-haul truckers in the United States 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 under 35 are women, Latinx, or from another country.

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

Many of the early adopters were from the Sikh ethnic group, who came in the late 1980s after fleeing ethnic violence at home, according to Gurinder Singh Khalsa, a Sihk 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 150,000 of the 3.5 million truckers in the U.S. are from northern and western India, although Keystone Crossroads was unable to verify that number. 

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 of I-81 in Carlisle, Pennsylvania.

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 said, selecting a meatball sub from the “American” portion of the menu. Emery has tried the biryani and said he liked it, but chose his comfort foods this visit.

Eat Spice owner Raj Alturu, who lives in Allentown, said 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 7 years ago, it served sandwiches. As the customer base changed, they kept the hoagies and started adding new dishes.

“We’re trying to update menu when we get requests from customers,” said 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 a regular customer asked for.

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

He orders goat biryani and 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 chuckled, grabbing his lower belly for emphasis. He said trucking isn’t healthy work, but it pays the bills.

Yousef Dahar, of Minnesota, talks while inside Eat Spice. (Matt Smith for Keystone Crossroads)

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 all 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.

Sean Yazici, originally from Turkey, came to Eat Spice for the Mediterranean dishes. (Matt Smith for Keystone Crossroads)

“I’m from another country, Turkey,” said Yazici. Finding Mediterranean food at a truck stop felt like hitting the lottery.

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