NYC Bodegas Are a Window Into the Boroughs’ Uneven Recovery

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  • Bloomberg Quicktake: Now published this video item, entitled “NYC Bodegas Are a Window Into the Boroughs’ Uneven Recovery” – below is their description.

    To understand the financial pulse of a NYC neighborhood, step into one of its 13,000 bodegas.

    Yueqi Yang takes us to a Bronx bodega where the owner risked his health and safety amid crime spikes as one of the few open food stores early on in the pandemic.

    In New York City, no one has the pulse of a neighborhood quite the same way a bodega owner does. Dotted across hundreds of communities, these roughly 13,000 convenience stores have been a window into the state of mind and financial health of their local residents during the pandemic.

    Francisco Marte’s northwest Bronx bodega saw neighbors getting infected by the virus and losing their jobs, pushing regulars to plead to put groceries on tab. About 20 miles away in Park Slope, Samrat Shah and Samiksha Shah recently opened their second store in Brooklyn following the success with their first selling premium items from organic milk to locally sourced jam.

    Their fates epitomize the uneven impact of the Covid-19 crisis in the five boroughs: Bodegas in low-income communities battled with a spike of unemployment, robberies and even shootings; stores in Manhattan’s office and tourist areas suffered from the lack of foot traffic, while those in affluent residential neighborhoods saw a steady flow of business as the working-from-home crowd shopped locally and spent more time cooking.

    Hundreds of bodegas, a name derived from the Spanish word for “storeroom” or “wine cellar,” shut down at the height of the pandemic last spring, with many closing permanently, according to Marte, who represents the Bodega and Small Business Group in the city. Here is a snapshot of four of these quintessentially New York City businesses and how they coped with the outbreak.

    Marte left Dominican Republic when he was 19, following his brother’s footsteps into the world of bodegas in the Bronx. He started from high-crime neighborhoods with a lot of “tough guys,” he said, and has survived two gunshots. At 50, he now owns three bodegas in the borough, including New Green Earth Deli in Norwood, a working-class Hispanic neighborhood.

    Many bodegas are located in a “food desert,” where they become the main source of groceries for their neighborhood and operate into the wee hours of the night, making them a target for crime.

    In the first eight months of the pandemic, shooting incidents inside or in front of bodegas and corner stores surged 63%, killing six people, according to police department data cited by the New York Times. Burglaries and robberies also rose.

    Having operated in a rough neighborhood, Marte has learned to defuse tense situations. Instead of refusing service to unmasked customers, he would offer them free masks. He has talked people out of stealing, allowing them to buy food on credit and pay back when their stimulus checks arrive — as long as they aren’t buying cigarettes or alcohol.

    Still, the financial distress of the community weighed on Marte’s business. In January, the unemployment rate in the Bronx was almost 18%, compared with 6.3% nationwide. The borough also had higher Covid infection and death rates than the average for the city. Serving two nearby schools, gyms and a local mechanic store, Marte went from selling 150 sandwiches a day to just 50.

    But sales are starting to look up again, Marte said, narrowing the gap from pre-pandemic levels to 25%, from 60% last spring. He’s even talking about plans to remodel his kitchen to provide healthier options like juice and salad. “I hope next month everything will be better, when the schools open in full,” he said.

    For the Shahs, a young couple from Nepal, premium, healthy food has become the key selling point.

    After a successful run with their Eastern District store in Greenpoint, where they said sales have been strong through the pandemic year, they’re offering similar organic snacks and groceries at their second store, a testament to the robust demand in the middle-class, residential Brooklyn neighborhoods that they serve.

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