John Nash has been running the 7th Avenue Gourmet deli, at the corner of Berkeley Place in Park Slope, for the past 10 years. But following the restrictions on public life that went into place last month because of the spread of COVID-19 in the city, Nash’s sale of sandwiches — usually one of the most popular and reliable items at the shop — has gone down by 80 percent, he tells Eater.
It’s a loss not made up by a rise in grocery sales as locals stock up on milk, eggs, bread, and cleaning supplies like bleach. Nash has had a sharp decrease in business, much like other bodegas in the city. It’s a reality that’s forced hundreds of bodegas across the city to close in recent weeks, representatives from the city’s two main bodega associations tell Eater.
But despite losses, many of the city’s more than 16,000 bodegas are staying open to provide access to people who can’t get to major grocery stores or to serve as an alternative to customers unwilling to brave long lines at places like Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods or even longer waits for grocery deliveries.
The city’s bodegas and delis — usually corner stores where New Yorkers go to pick up sandwiches and snacks — are typically owned by people of color and immigrants, and many are located in neighborhoods that don’t have easy access to larger grocery stores.
In the city’s food deserts, like parts of East Harlem, the South Bronx, and Central Brooklyn, locals rely on bodegas for fresh food.
“We are risking our lives to provide a service to our community because our customers are our friends and we usually see them everyday,” says Frank Marte, the secretary at the Bodegas and Small Business Association, which represents about 13,000 bodegas across the city, and the owner of the New Green Earth Deli in Norwood, in the Bronx. “We have to provide a service to people who can’t travel far for food.”
Bodega owners may have lower overheads compared to small restaurants, but they aren’t immune to the dramatic downturn in business caused by coronavirus-related restrictions that are currently in place. Many of them make significant money from sandwiches, snacks, and other prepared food items, but as most New Yorkers are staying home because of state-mandated stay-at-home guidelines, that side of the business has taken a significant hit.
Like others, they’ve had to adjust their business model. To meet the increased demand for basic supplies, bodega owners are making more trips than usual to suppliers. Jetro outposts, one of the biggest options for bodega options, have initiated several coronavirus-related safety protocols including taped spots at checkout for social distancing and frequently sanitizing shopping carts. A spokesperson for the supply company says purchases of water, paper products, cleaning supplies, rice, beans, and canned foods have all increased in the last three to four weeks, as have trips to the stores from owners.
Still, overall business for the bodega owners hasn’t really picked up. Rhadames Rodriguez owns three bodegas in the Bronx but has had to shut two down because of the slowdown. He kept his shop Pamela’s Green Deli in Morrisania open because his employees say they need their jobs to survive, he tells Eater.
“I was trying to close all my stores, but I know our community needs this store to stay open,” Rodriguez tells Eater.
Many like Rodriguez have also had to quickly adopt makeshift measures to preserve their health and that of their employees. Rodriguez has installed a glass panel in front of the cash register. Youssef Mubarez — a spokesperson for the Yemeni American Merchants Association, a group that represents more than 4,000 bodega, deli, and small business owners across the city — says many of the group’s members have installed plastic sheets around their cash registers to protect themselves. The group is trying to raise funds to get more masks and gloves for bodega workers as well.
Despite all their efforts, many bodegas might not be able to return once the virus passes, Mubarez tells Eater. He predicts that several will close permanently because of the financial hit bodegas are taking right now, and unlike with restaurants, bodegas may face a harder time getting help from the government.
Representatives of both the major bodega associations say many owners won’t be able to apply for small business loan relief because bodega owners often pay their employees in cash and may not have a payroll system set up.
Some efforts are underway to provide assistance to owners, though. Richard Lipsky, who lobbies on behalf of the Bodega and Small Business Association says he’s in conversation with legislators like City Council member Mark Gjonaj, who heads the council’s committee on small businesses. He’s hoping that bodega owners will get provisions such as rent relief. No measures have been introduced yet however.
For now, those bodegas that can stay open are soldiering on. “If we are not going to die doing this, we are going to die doing something else,” Rodriguez, the owner of the Morrisania bodega, says. “And we have bills to pay.”