By KRISTIN OWENS
Rajeev Kumar is standing behind his register past midnight this Wednesday, just where every 7-Eleven regular expects him to be. His corner of the counter is cluttered with displays of baseball and Pokemon cards, hot-dog-shaped lighters and the standard collection box of change for charity. The store is noisy with late-nighting college students; a line of 14 stretches back to the Slurpee machine.
“It’s Mister Raj!” exclaims the next young woman to come up to the register. “How are you doing? How’s business?”
She’s not the only one in the store on a first-name basis with the owner. Raj estimated that he has a few hundred regulars, and that he knows the faces of close to 1,000 people. That claim would be easy to dismiss as a bit of good business hyperbole until you watch him call out someone’s name almost every time the door jingles open.
Raj remembers personal details about many of them. One customer works out at the same gym, another is trying to quit smoking, and another chats with him about their shared love of BMWs. Every so often, someone will test Raj on whether he remembers a name.
“Oh my gosh, that’s right: Megan,” Raj says, after coming up blank on one.
“It’s OK, maybe one day you’ll remember,” she replies.
“Bye Megan!” Raj calls as she leaves. “Megan, Megan, Megan. See you Megan!”
Raj has supervised the night shift at this 7-Eleven six nights a week for more than three years, giving him plenty of time to get to know the clientele, many of whom are local high school and college students. He’s become somewhat of a celebrity among the college crowd – one BYU student created a fake profile using Raj’s name and picture on the Facebook networking site, and 319 BYU students have added him as a friend.
Raj greets unfamiliar customers just as warmly as the regulars, often with a “What’s up, chief?” or “How’s it going, boss?”
“Anything else?” he always asks at the counter. “Buy one, get one free, maybe yes? Come on. Just do it!”
The customers don’t seem to mind Raj’s good-natured pushing of his donut and candy deals, and he said they often give in to his urging to “just do it.”
“I just like watching him,” said former clerk Nate Merrill, who worked nights with Raj for several months. “He makes people laugh all the time; he gets along with everyone.”
Born and raised in Delhi, India, Raj immigrated to the United States about nine years ago. Although he had a degree in office management from the University of Delhi, he spoke little English on his arrival in America, and found work as a bus driver in New Jersey – his first time ever driving. He learned English as he went, mostly by talking to people despite his limited vocabulary.
After almost six years of working 60-hour weeks driving buses and selling cars, with occasional visits home to India, Raj’s family chose a wife for him. In the Kumars’ Hindu religion, arranged marriage is the norm, and Raj met his wife Meena only once before they married. Soon after bringing her back to New Jersey, Raj and his brother Mukesh were able to buy a 7-Eleven in Utah, the first of two they now own – one in Provo and the next in Springville.
The store at 496 N. University Ave. has always had a social atmosphere and gotten a lot of business, said Linda Meyer, an employee who has worked there for 11 years. Part of that she attributes to its location on a busy road near BYU.
“Raj does add a lot to it,” Meyer said. “He is very, very friendly, whether it’s a guy or a girl. I think that’s good for repeat business.”
Repeat business includes locals like Tyson Apostol and Dana Hill, who have been frequenting this 7-Eleven since long before the Kumar brothers took over.
“This is our favorite 7-Eleven in all the world,” said Apostol, a former BYU student. “This one is social.”
They usually show up late at night for “a drink and a treat,” Apostol said, and tonight they’re picking up sunflower seeds before they go play video games. Raj recognizes them, they said, but they’re pretty sure he doesn’t actually know their names. A quick quiz proves them wrong – Raj has no problem remembering Tyson, Dana or their friend Jordan, who didn’t think Raj had any idea who he was.
To Raj, taking an interest in people is not just good business – it’s who he’s always been.
“I go anywhere and I find my buddies,” he said. “Doesn’t matter if it’s a kid or an old man, they’re all my friends.”
His coworkers call it “very rare” to see Raj in a bad mood. He describes himself as a strictly positive person, and said getting upset is just not worth it, even when that means having to be patient.
“I have one life – I’m not going to fight for a penny,” he said. “It’s a people-loving job. If you don’t get along with people, you can go pick up garbage on the street where nobody knows who you are.”
The effort of developing relationships always pays off, he said, and business has certainly been going well for the Kumars. Last August the brothers expanded the family business to include a new Indian restaurant called Swagat, located at 664 N. Freedom Blvd. Raj works afternoons in the restaurant before the 7-Eleven night shift, and said he often runs into people he knows from the convenience store.
Although they miss India, Raj said he and his wife love living in Utah Valley. He describes the people as loving and said although his family is in the ethnic and religious minority, they have yet to experience any prejudice or discrimination.
“I give respect, I get respect,” he said. “That’s it.”
Meena makes Raj a homemade dinner to take to work every night, and because tonight is so busy, he is sneaking bites of curry from a Tupperware container between each transaction. By 1 a.m., he’ll be headed for home.
“I have a smile on my face; I’m a happy man,” he says during a lull. “What more do you need?”
A fresh wave of college-age students moves into the store, calling out greetings to Raj, making small talk at checkout about the weather and the Jazz.
“There’s a 7-Eleven closer to me,” BYU student Jodi Leynse said, “but we come here just for Raj.”