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Dartmouth College won’t renew lease for Jewel of India restaurant in June

  • Balbir Singh, left, owner of the Jewel of India in Hanover, N.H., cooks during lunch on Thursday, Jan. 23, 2020. Cooking with him is Manjit Singh, the tandoori chef at the restaurant. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Jewel of India owner Surjit Kaur laughs with customers Eleanor Shafer, left, and Sarahjane Dooley, both of Lyme, N.H., after their lunch on Thursday, Jan. 23, 2020 in Hanover, N.H. Dartmouth College, owner of the building, recently told the restaurant's owners it would not be renewing their lease in June. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Employee Kulwiner Singh sweeps the ramp at Jewel of India in Hanover, N.H., on Thursday, Jan. 23, 2020. Dartmouth College, owner of the building, recently told the restaurant's owners it would not be renewing their lease in June. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • When picking up his food, Zamir Paley, of Quechee, Vt., talks with Jewel of India owner Surjit Kaur on Thursday, Jan. 23, 2020 in Hanover, N.H. Paley said he has been coming to the restaurant since he was a child. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Valley News Business Writer
Published: 1/24/2020 1:14:16 PM
Modified: 1/25/2020 10:36:19 PM

HANOVER — The Jewel of India, after 28 years, needs to find a new home in the months ahead.

The family-owned Indian restaurant must vacate the 110-year-old white clapboard structure at the corner of Lebanon Street and Sanborn Road in Hanover, the latest downtown restaurant to fall victim to a changing commercial landscape.

Under pressure from the town to address the aging building’s issues — it dates to about 1910 — property owner Dartmouth College has informed Jewel of India’s husband-and-wife owners, Balbir Singh and Surjit Kaur, that the college will not renew the lease when it expires in June.

Dartmouth, which acquired the building along with 19 other properties for $6 million in 2002, will demolish it for “structural reasons,” according to Rick Mills, executive vice president of finance and administration at Dartmouth.

Once torn down, the location will be a vacant lot for the indefinite future.

“I think someday we will develop it,” Mills told the Valley News. “When that will be I don’t know yet.”

The corner building, assessed at $1.2 million, is one of three structures all owned by Dartmouth and collectively known as the “Sargent Block” between Sanborn and Sargent Place, which includes the brick building with ground floor space leased to New London Cleaners and the low-slung, motel-style dormitory known as “The Lodge.”

Hanover Town Manager Julia Griffin said the block, opposite the Black Family Visual Arts Center, “is ultimately slated for redevelopment, but not until the college has enough dorm swing space that they can afford to raze the old Lodge property.”

Closing doors

Jewel of India losing its lease follows the closing in recent years of four other downtown eating establishments: the near back-to-back closings of Everything But Anchovies (38 years in business) and Thai Orchid (in business 18 years but now operating as Pim’s Thai Orchid in Lebanon) in 2017, Canoe Club in 2018 (15 years in business) and Orient in 2019 (four years in business).

And more Hanover restaurant disruption is coming. The owners of Skinny Pancake after four years have decided not to renew their lease in the Hanover Park building on Lebanon Street. Skinny Pancake co-owner Benjy Adler said he expects to find another location in town (for more on the crepe shop, see “Bottom Line” on page C1).

Dartmouth’s decision not to renew the lease took Singh and Kaur, who opened Jewel of India in 1992, by surprise — Singh said he was told a couple of weeks ago when he hand-delivered his rent check, as he does every month, to the college’s real estate office around the corner.

“They said they can’t renew the lease because the condition of the building is bad,” Kaur said last week as she and her husband sat in the restaurant before the lunch rush. “They said there was Hanover town pressure.”

In a statement, Dartmouth College spokeswoman Diana Lawrence said the tenants were notified in December 2018 that the lease would not be renewed.

Kaur and Singh have reached out to Hanover commercial real estate broker Chip Brown for help finding a new location. Kaur said they are currently paying $7,200 per month in rent to Dartmouth, but he estimated rent would jump to $12,000 to $15,000 per month if they found a location on South Main Street.

Brown has told them he thinks the chances are favorable they will be able find a new spot, according to Kaur. Brown declined to comment.

Although there are numerous available spaces to which Jewel of India could relocate in Lebanon or West Lebanon, Kaur said, “everyone wants us to stay in Hanover. But I don’t know how we are going to find a place.”

And given that the Dartmouth community accounts for a large percentage of the restaurant’s business, migrating to Lebanon like Thai Orchid would be tough.

“Lebanon would be like starting all over again,” Singh said.

Jewel of India serves about 150 dinners per night — including sit-down, carry-out and delivery to students in their dorms. The deliveries alone average about 10 orders per night.

The restaurant also has a catering business, which largely serves Dartmouth events.

Indian-American dream

Like many people who operate a restaurant that specializes in another culture’s cuisine, Singh, 67, and Kaur, 56, are an American success story.

Born and raised a half-hour from each other in the northern India state of Punjab, the two didn’t meet until the day in 1989 when their parents introduced them for a traditional arranged marriage.

“Our parents were friends,” Kaur said.

After they were married, Singh returned to Los Angeles where he was working in an Indian restaurant near Beverly Hills, and Kaur stayed behind at her family’s farm in Punjab.

Singh then moved to Burlington, where his brother and sister had a restaurant, and in 1990 Kaur came over to join him.

A couple years later, they struck out on their own by opening an Indian restaurant in Concord. It failed.

“We lost our money,” Singh said.

But, Singh said, they frequently had customers coming into their Concord restaurant from Hanover, who would remark how there wasn’t an Indian restaurant in the Upper Valley.

A college town with thousands of students would surely be a good place to open one, the customers said.

So Singh and Kaur scouted Hanover and found the white clapboard building that was once an ice cream parlor but more recently had been the apparel store Rosey Jekes, before it moved a few doors west on Lebanon Street. They specialized in North India Punjabi region cuisine, such as tandoori meat and poultry dishes and naan breads, all cooked in a clay oven with a charcoal bottom to impart traditional flavors.

Singh and Kaur — wives and husbands in the Sikh religion keep their separate names in marriage — settled in West Lebanon and had two children who are now out on their own: Karampreet “Peety” Kaur, 26, a standout athlete at Lebanon High School who went on to Dartmouth and is now in medical school at Vanderbilt; and Manjot, who graduated with two B.S. degrees from Keene State and is now in the management training program at Enterprise Rent-a-Car in Boston.

As anyone who has worked a shift in a restaurant knows, the business is grueling.

Singh and Kaur put in 10- to 12-hour days six days a week (the restaurant is open seven days a week for lunch and breakfast), closing only on Thanksgiving and Christmas. Although Singh and Kaur share in the work equally, they gravitated to their own roles.

“He’s smart in the kitchen, I’m smart in the front,” Kaur said.

When news broke on the Upper Valley Facebook page on Tuesday about Jewel of India having to close when its lease expires, a fountain of comments erupted — by Wednesday night, some 196 comments appeared from fans of the restaurant, many pointing out empty storefronts in Hanover, Lebanon, West Lebanon and Enfield where Jewel of India could relocate.

“My husband and I have been going there since 2005,” Georgia Donnelly, who posted the initial comment on Facebook, said in an interview with the Valley News. Donnelly said she heard the news when she stopped by the restaurant Monday night for takeout to bring home for her husband’s birthday.

Now it’s a tradition they are trying to pass on to their young children.

“We started eating there before we got married, and we ate there a lot before we had kids. Now it’s mostly special occasions. We’re trying to introduce our kids to it but, you know, it’s spicy. I didn’t like spicy food either when I was a kid,” Donnelly noted.

“But we’re working on it,” she said.

John Lippman can be reached at jlippman@vnews.com.

Valley News

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