Inder and Jarnail Gahunia enjoy building up their business in C-K
By Jenna Cocullo, Local Journalism Initiative
Husband and wife, Jarnail and Inder Singh Gahunia, sip tea as they enjoy a moment of calm sitting on the benches laid out in the Downtown Chatham Centre.
Jarnail will tell his customers the proud story of his son’s success.
Inder has so many people waving hello, calling her by name, that she can’t keep track of who’s who.
One customer even kindly brought the Gahunias a photo of their very first shop opened in the mid-1970s on King Street.
After 44 years of building several local businesses and raising three kids, the sweet couple are ready to retire for good this time. They will be saying goodbye to T’s & Sweats, best known for providing Chatham-Kent residents with sports apparel from every major league team.
“I love the people and meeting the people,” said Inder when describing her favourite memories of owning a business. “That’s why when we are not busy we like to sit out here and have people come talk to us.”
The Gahunias’ journey to where they are now is a long one. They met in India and got married at the age of 22 and 21 respectively. This year they will be celebrating 50 years of marriage.
The duo decided to immigrate to Canada after Jarnail got his Economics Degree at the University of Punjab. His father passed away while he was in Grade 10 and he wanted to make more opportunities for his family.
They landed in Toronto but Chatham is what caught their eye and their hearts.
“I fell in love with this city at my first visit,” said Jarnail, who also grew up in a quiet rural town.
He came to Chatham-Kent in March 1973 and began working for Dover Corporation as a welder.
It was the matriarch of the family who decided to start up the family-run business.
“She’s worked very hard to grow the business from one store to many other locations,” Jarnail said as his partner was helping a customer pick out a shirt.
He’ll be the first to boast about how his wife is the brains behind their operation.
“She was doing all the paperwork at home, getting the displays ready. She works really hard.”
Inder first decided to play it safe by opening up a small consignment store, selling newspapers, cigarettes and other items that were guaranteed not to lose them money if they didn’t sell.
After she got the hang of the business, the couple upgraded to a 500 square-foot store at the North Maple Mall. Eventually their small empire grew to a 3,000 sq.-ft. store in Sarnia, the one in the North Maple Mall, and the purchase of a three-storey building on King Street.
Jarnail said they were very fortunate to have a second income as a safety net. But family was also integral to their success.
“The whole family was working together. We used to work 16-18 hours a day.”
Jarnail’s two sisters-in-law also ran a T’s & Sweats branch in Tecumseh Mall.
Inder, a multi-tasking mom, was able to lean on the help of her mother-in-law as she breastfed her children at the store.
They have a lot of fond memories of their kids “working” in the business. Before they began school, they would follow their mom everywhere wanting to price tag whatever she was pricing and wanting to hang whatever she was putting up on the rack.
“And when they started going to school, I told them not to come to the store. I said ‘Do your homework, pay attention to your studies, and play sports,’” Jarnail said.
“But they would still show up and the first thing they would say is, ‘Dad don’t be mad, we have done our studying, homework and played sports.’ They always came to help.”
Their hard work ethic rubbed off on the kids watching their mom and dad’s every move. Their eldest son now has multiple university degrees, a nice house in Ajax and runs all the divisions of his company across the globe.
The Gahunias eventually graduated from parents to grandparents. They now have seven little ones that they hope to spend more time with in retirement.
“So now we feel that if my mother can help make our children so successful, it is our duty and responsibility now to spend time with our grandkids so that they are better than their parents and become good citizens.”
Inder already spends a few hours a week teaching them to speak Punjabi. Her three-year-old grandchild can already count to 10, she boasted.
During their free time the couple also helps to run the Chatham-Kent Sikh Society, of which Jarnail was a founding member.
They recently raised $10,000 of donation money to give to the Chatham-Kent Health Alliance to buy personal protective equipment during the pandemic.
Inder is also the vice-president of the Asian Canadian Cultural Association and managed to raise an additional $5,000 for pandemic aid.
It’s taking a while to sell the store, despite some interested buyers wanting to purchase the business, because Jarnail won’t just sell to anyone.
“Money is not everything for us. Honesty and integrity is the main thing for me,” he said.
When the time does come to hand over the keys, the Gahunias will be saying goodbye to Chatham-Kent and moving to the Kitchener area to be closer to their family.
But they plan to keep a small home in the municipality that they first fell in love with.
“We made Chatham our home so even if we close the business, we will keep our roots here,” Jarnail said. “I love Chatham-Kent.”