At first, Don Juan looks similar to many Lower East Side bodegas: shelves lined with cereals, dish soaps, and chips. At the back, it is something more, with metal trays layered with juicy pernil that perfumes the room. Lately, though, there have been signs of the corner store’s transformation into a pop-up food hub during its off-hours.
Pernil isn’t the only dish that’s been sold out of the back of the bodega. Tostones smash burgers from 7th Street Burger and lemongrass ice cream from Caffè Panna with a scallion pancake garnish were offered at Don Juan for the first time this summer. The pop-ups are part of an ongoing partnership with Forsyth Fire Escape — known for their viral scallion pancake burrito — who collaborate with the space and use it as a test kitchen.
Delis, convenience stores, or bodegas, depending on what you call them, are spaces that ignite culinary innovation. Fueled by social media or bolstered by the pandemic, this new wave of convenience store food in New York can be as dynamic as anything happening within the confines of a traditional restaurant.
There are some 13,000 bodegas in New York City, according to the United Bodegas of America; though as its website suggests, the number is likely much higher as public records are, in the group’s words, “incomplete,” and definitions of what constitutes a bodega at all vary and are used interchangeably. To stand out beyond just functioning as someone’s closest corner store option is a feat.
These corner stores have also been incubators for some of NYC’s most iconic dishes. Take chopped cheese. The genesis and exact date that the chopped cheese was invented at East Harlem’s Hajji’s is disputed, but what’s clear is that it has remained an enduring influence on New York food culture, as well as a lightning rod for conversations around gentrification.
A side gig or alternate revenue stream in a bodega kitchen may be particularly appealing to those weary of starting a standalone business in an era of such punishing commercial rents. (Plus, to a degree, owners are able to skirt some of the New York restaurant opening bureaucracy.)
The owners of Secret Thai Street Food were fatigued by the full-service restaurant model and decided to band together to open a Thai buffet earlier this year at the back of HLopez Marketplace, a Latin market selling smoothies and snacks in Astoria. Meanwhile, the East Village’s Sunny & Annie’s, a 24-hour deli, has for years served up some of the city’s most creative sandwiches, combining ingredients like bulgogi, bacon, and canteloupe and creating dish names that riff on politics and other cultural events — a progenitor of today’s social media-fueled stacked sandwiches.
Before debuting new items at their stand in Chelsea food hall Olly Olly Market, Forsyth Fire Escape premieres them at Don Juan, their de facto test kitchen. “We consider Don Juan the heart and soul of Forsyth,” says co-owner Isabel Lee. For her partner, Luis Fernandez, the relationship with Don Juan is personal; he is Dominican American, much like his favorite corner store.
The partnership is mutually beneficial for both the food company and the bodega. Forsyth Fire Escape hires Don Juan workers and pays a percentage of the proceeds to the kitchen. They work with Don Juan’s Yojany Lopez to bottle and sell Elmer’s Bodega Sauce. Meanwhile, customers tend to pick up more than just scallion pancake burritos when they visit the Lower East Side shop.
In a similar way, bodegas are expanding their customer base through TikTok. Rahim Mohamed runs what some might call NYC’s most social media-famous bodega. The deli counter is his stage: The Yemeni American owner freestyles the menu, deciding sandwich combinations on a whim — the “Ocky Way” — which might include pancakes and hot sauce. It’s not dissimilar to the idea of omakase, where the chef is in charge.
Mohamed is one of several owners flipping the script. The “Ocky Way” is part of the trend of proprietors messing around with what bodega food looks like — fully on the owners’ terms. In the process, Mohamed (and others) are helping make the labor it takes to run a space like this more visible online. The ambition is clear, and in the process, is bringing these bodegas beyond just their neighborhoods; in some cases, with citywide acclaim.
Datz Deli in Hollis, Queens, is one of a handful of spots that have benefited financially from this social media boom — reportedly raking in $165,000 a month, according to CBS — and bringing in new customers traveling to wait hours on line. This month, they announced that a second location will be coming this fall to Manhattan.
Even those operators who don’t have a social media account are benefitting from others’ tagging them, such as La Esquina del Camarón Mexicano in Jackson Heights, which has changed deli locations through the years. It appears to be just a smoke shop and deli — until you step through and find a kitchen serving some of the area’s better mariscos. Spots like this are perfect fodder for the social media app, where users love hidden kitchens.
Giulia Álvarez-Katz, a native New Yorker, and host of the series “Third Places” — as part of her producer role for the Righteous Eats platform — often highlights these multifaceted corner stores.
“It’s definitely a sort of social space as well as a deli, for a certain cohort of people, particularly Nepalese people in the area,” she says of a recent video highlighting Mount Everest Deli in Ridgewood, Queens, which sells paratha breakfast sandwiches and pani puri. It fits the bill as it’s also a place where immigrant cuisines marinate with New York deli staples.
An increase in customers from social media can be a huge boost for business, but it also has the potential to change who the space is for and make longer waits for regulars. What does it mean when influencers or tourists flock to bodegas, especially in lower-income neighborhoods?
Navigating how to keep the local, communal aspect at the forefront is what Xavier Minaya and Jeison Arias often think about with their Bed-Stuy bodega GoodTimes. “It’s kind of difficult seeing that it’s so gentrified, catering to different demographics, but we try to be inclusive to the whole neighborhood. We want to be a safe space, especially for the kids,” says Minaya.
The brothers grew up in East Flatbush and Brownsville, working in their family’s bodegas and then later for the city, one in mental health hospital services, and the other at a shelter. “But we always dreamed of making a deli of our own with our own spins,” says Minaya. In 2021, they rebranded an old deli space into GoodTimes, and have spent the last couple of years building out a menu that pulls both from their heritage (there’s a sandwich with queso blanco and Dominican salami with fried eggs and ketchup), as well as others named after customers.
This year, they joined Instagram, announcing their first pop-up in July. They collaborated with their neighborhood regulars, the duo behind Ha’s Đặc Biệt, using Apollo Bagels. “I was surprised how successful it was,” says Minaya of the event, which had a line down the block — and they’re already scheming others.
While customers are flooding spaces like Datz Deli and ordering the “Ocky Way,” it doesn’t make them easy to run. The hours are long and the upkeep alongside high order numbers can be demanding, while food costs are rising and margins stay thin. Plus, for those with social media acclaim, customer expectations can be high.
And unless one strikes social media gold, wages can remain moderate — and even then are not guaranteed to improve, especially when competing with the deluge of app-based delivery grocery companies on the market or simply another, similar business around the corner.
Not all of these restaurants inside of bodegas have worked out. Queens Lanka was started by Staten Island restaurant vets to offer a taste of Sri Lanka through dishes like lamprais, alongside groceries. “It’s very difficult to make this at home, so people are happy they can get it here,” owner Rasika Wetthasinghe told Eater upon opening in 2022 (the restaurant has since closed and is exploring relocating a version of it elsewhere).
“In a way, I think it’s harder to run something ad hoc like this. There isn’t a set system necessarily,” says Álvarez-Katz of the deli-restaurant hybrids. “They’re a beautiful expression of what makes the city really cool — being a million things in one.”