Everyone assumes the owner of the new Shell station on Louisville Road is named Sonny, but it’s actually Sunny – sunny like the disposition he keeps no matter who approaches his register.
Satish Patel, 43, picked a new name when he moved to New York from Gujarat, India. Sunny is easier for Americans to pronounce, and it fits with his guiding philosophy: Treat people well while you are alive, and they’ll speak well of you once you are dead. His father taught him that as he was growing up on a farm in India.
“He’s got a friendly personality, he doesn’t complain, and he’s always smiling,” says Russ Roberts, a compliance coordinator with Cumberland Lake Shell who checks on Sunny’s station every few weeks.
“You spend a few minutes with him, and you feel like you’ve known him a long time,” Roberts said, adding that Sunny will answer any question about his background or nation or Hindu religion.
“My life is an open book,” Sunny says.
The station, which Sunny opened at 930 Louisville Road Nov. 22 with his sister, Rikha, has a steady stream of regulars. He often makes small talk while ringing up Cokes, candy, alcohol, lottery tickets or newspapers.
It’s important to connect with customers, he says, otherwise they won’t return. Chain gas station owners don’t make their money from gas, he says. They make it off merchandise.
As gas prices fluctuate, sometimes he makes a few cents off each gallon, but sometimes he loses a few cents.
“It’s a gamble, but by the end of the year it evens out so I make about 3 cents per gallon,” he said. “I make more money in the store.”
Sunny’s workweek is exhausting. He often stands behind the register from 6:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. seven days a week, and after shutting the station down each night, he drives to Georgetown where he and his wife, Smita, run the Knights Inn. He works at the hotel until after midnight, grabs a few hours of sleep, then it’s back to his register at the Shell station.
“I don’t like to sit down,” he says, explaining why he works more than 100 hours a week. “I’m not one to sit around at home.”
He and his wife live next to the Knights Inn in Georgetown with their son, Rushil, 14, and daughter, Rushita, 8.
Kentucky is the perfect place to raise a family, he says. He credits his 82-year-old mother, Shardaben, with encouraging him to move here from New York.
They were vacationing in Kentucky, and as they drove through the Bluegrass countryside, his mother said the natural beauty reminded her of India.
“She said, ‘New York’s too crowded; Let’s move to Kentucky,’” Sunny remembers.
Sunny, who attended school in India through 10th grade, first came to the U.S. in 1995. He grew up in a family that was “not very, very poor” but poor in comparison to his life now.
“Everyone’s thinking is America has the green, so that’s why I came here, too,” he says.
He first lived with his sister in New York and found a job at a grocery store. Eventually, he found a job at a New York cigar shop, which his boss sold to him after a few years.
“My boss was a good, good man,” Sunny said. “I’m very grateful to him.”
In 2001, he sold the store for just under $1 million, which allowed him to buy the Knights Inn in Georgetown.
“I like Kentucky better than New York,” he says. He sees Georgetown as more of a happening, growing town and calls Frankfort an old-style town, but he likes them both.
Though he is making his small fortune in the U.S., Sunny’s goal is to return to India. There is an end in sight to 100-plus-hour workweeks.
Asked whether he has time for anything other than work, Sunny smiles, has to think a while, then jokes, “I have hobbies like smoking a cigarette and drinking a beer.”