Industry Trends

Chasing the American Dream: The Rise of Asian Immigrant Entrepreneurs in the Franchise Industry

Dave Lu
June 5, 2023

Picture this: Jagjit Singh Saini, a qualified chemist from India, arrives in the United States full of hope, only to find himself caught in a web of cultural and language barriers. Unfazed, Saini capitalizes on his entrepreneurial spirit and carves his path in an industry far removed from chemistry. He purchases a 7-Eleven franchise in Long Island, New York, and fast forward to today - he proudly owns ten of these franchises and employs over a hundred people.

Welcome to the world of franchising, the powerful magnet that has attracted countless Asian immigrants seeking greener pastures. Notably, Indians with their academic prowess and business acumen have been some of the most successful players in the arena.

Striking Gold in the Franchise Market

Asian immigrants, most notably from India and China, are often highly educated, with many holding advanced degrees. However, despite their education and experience, they frequently encounter difficulties securing jobs or promotions commensurate with their qualifications due to barriers such as language, culture, and occasionally, discrimination. To navigate these obstacles, many have turned to franchising.

Franchising offers a viable route to entrepreneurship with a lower risk profile compared to starting a business from scratch. Franchises come with tried and tested business models, strong brand recognition, and supportive networks of fellow franchisees. These factors have made franchising an appealing prospect for immigrants. It's also a strategic way to support family immigration, as owning a franchise can create jobs and assist in visa sponsorship for relatives. Immigrants are much more likely to become entrepreneurs than native-born Americans, with 0.53 percent rate of entrepreneurship for immigrants against only a 0.29 percent rate for natives.

Tales of Triumph: Shaping the American Fast Food Landscape

So, who's serving your Subway sandwich, and who's delivering your morning dose of Dunkin' Donuts coffee? An International Franchise Association (IFA) report reveals that immigrants own an impressive 20.5% of Subway franchises and a whopping 58% of Dunkin' Donuts outlets in the U.S. And when it comes to 7-Eleven, Asian immigrants own a staggering 67% of franchises. Overall, immigrants own 29 percent of all restaurants and hotels, more than twice the 14-percent rate for all businesses, according to U.S. census data. Charley Shin, CEO of Charleys Philly Cheesesteaks said in Nations Restaurant News, "Anyone who starts a business has to have a lot of courage. When someone is leaving their own country and going to a foreign land, they are inherently more courageous people. They are much more entrepreneurial.”

Anand Gala helped his mother Rajul when she became one of the first franchisees of Jack in the Box after hitting the glass ceiling of corporate America. "As early as 8 or 9, I was going with my mother to work on weekends and holidays," he says. "I stood on a milk crate and worked in uniform as a cashier or cook. I've basically done every position in the restaurant, and that's where I learned the business: at the foot of my mother. It was truly a family business." Today Gala is one of the most successful men in the franchise restaurant industry.

The Family Recipe for Success and Survival

These numbers are impressive, but what’s the secret sauce? Most Asian immigrant entrepreneurs keep it all in the family. Running a franchise becomes a family affair, with extended family members pooling their resources and labor. This model not only makes business operations efficient and cost-effective but also weaves a supportive familial network into the very fabric of the business. The franchise model allows immigrants to sponsor extended family members with visas to immigrate with a path to a promising income and life here in the U.S. Congress created the EB-5 Program in 1990 to stimulate the U.S. economy through job creation and capital investment by foreign investors. Under this program, investors (and their spouses and unmarried children under 21) are eligible to apply for lawful permanent residence (become a Green Card holder) if they make the necessary investment in a commercial enterprise in the United States (and plan to create or preserve 10 permanent full-time jobs for qualified U.S. workers). The E2 visa is for foreign investors from certain countries who will make a substantial commitment of funds to a new or existing U.S. business that will allow the investor to earn a living for him or herself and his family. Meanwhile the L-1 visa is for foreign businesses seeking to transfer a manager or executive level employee to a United States subsidiary or affiliate. These immigration programs have paved the way for tens of thousands of immigrants to open their own franchise operations and build a new life in America.

Overcoming Adversity and Odds

The stories of successful Asian immigrants in the franchise industry are as diverse as they are inspiring. Take Shoukat Dhanani. Arriving from Pakistan, he and his brother started small with a gas station in Alabama. Now, their company, the Dhanani Group, controls more than 1,000 Burger King and Popeyes locations.

Then there's Sunil "Sunny" Dharod, an immigrant from India. Today, Sunny operates over 150 Applebee’s, 47 Pizza Huts, and 71 Taco Bell franchises, but his journey began as a busboy in his father's restaurant.

These immigrants are giving back to their communities in meaningful ways as well. CC Yin immigrated from Taiwan in the 60's, with $100 in his pocket. Yin worked as an engineer until getting laid off at age 48. That's when he stumbled upon a chance to buy a failing McDonald's in Oakland, CA. "He's provided employment for our local youth, scholarships through his foundation for college-bound seniors, and he's just been nothing but generous to our community in times of need, " Vallejo Mayor Bob Sampayan said. During the pandemic, Yin's non-profit donated millions of surgical masks, goggles, gowns, face shields and hand sanitizers to frontline workers in the Bay Area and nationwide in Vacaville, Vallejo, Fairfield, Suisun City, Sacramento and even Seattle and New York.

These entrepreneurs have not only amassed wealth but also contributed significantly to the U.S. economy and communities around the country. A report from the New American Economy notes that immigrant-owned businesses, including franchises, generated over $1.3 trillion in income and employed nearly 8 million people in 2017.

Living the Dream

Brimming with resilience, determination, and entrepreneurial spirit, Asian immigrants, have left an indelible mark on the U.S. restaurant industry. Franchising has provided a launchpad for these individuals to overcome barriers, achieve financial success, and make significant contributions to the American economy. In doing so, they have truly personified the American Dream. These stories of triumph remind us that the strength of the American landscape lies in its diversity and the endless possibilities it offers.