Photo: Gustavo Garcia. Carmen Aponte, owner of St. Michael’s Grocery, says challenges like online ordering and crime are hurting the bodega business.

Bodegas, the South Bronx’s food lifeline, are struggling

Pre-pandemic La Mina Mini Market at the intersection of Hoe Avenue and Aldus Street would have been bustling with customers. The bodega’s owner, Nicolas Moronta, pointed from behind the counter towards the open space that was once filled with customers.

“Take a look, we are barely ok, and it’s not the same,” said Moronta, 55. The bodega is operating at half capacity, with only a few people browsing items and lining up to order from the deli counter.

Delivery apps and a rise in crime are cited as the biggest challenges to the South Bronx bodegas that managed to make it through the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The rise of big-name delivery services like UberEats, Seamless, Grubhub and others have put even more bodegas at risk of shutting down, as Bronxites follow a national trend toward ordering their food online and awaiting home delivery. Moronta sees the effects on his livelihood day to day.

“Apps are being used a lot and I think they are affecting our business. A lot of people use them in the neighborhood. I have three other stores and it’s the same in the other locations.”

Bodegas have been used as an indicator of the disparities across New York City communities, with more bodegas closing in low-income neighborhoods while others are opening in more affluent neighborhoods.

The South Bronx has suffered historically from a lack of quality food options. According to the New York City Food Policy Center at Hunter College, less than 50% of residents live five minutes or less from supermarkets with fruits and vegetables. The same study used SNAP benefits as a measure of food insecurity, which about half of South Bronx residents receive compared to the national average of 12.8%.

Historically, this has left many South Bronx residents relying on their local bodegas. In 2016, in Hunts Point and Longwood, bodegas outnumbered supermarkets 20 to one, and in Mott Haven and Melrose, that ratio was 25 to one. Bodegas serve as a significant food supplier as well as a cultural staple in many ethnic communities across the city.

Radhemes Rodriguez, president of United Bodegas of America, explained that even after making it through the worst of the pandemic, small businesses like bodegas are struggling to stay afloat because now they’re often having to compete with big-name delivery apps that can afford to offer lower prices.

“Many of these apps are funded by big corporations that have a lot of money. The sellers on the app are also usually big-name, fast-food restaurants that are protected by investors. Because of the resources available to them, they’re able to offer more promotions and discounts that are more attractive to your average New Yorker,” said Rodriguez.

Mayor Eric Adams said in an event on Feb. 7 that the idea that healthy food is expensive is false, and encouraged New Yorkers to take a look inside their neighborhood bodegas.

“I want people to say, ‘What could I eat in my bodega right now?’ These black-eyed peas are right in your local bodega. The carrots in your local bodega. The bananas, the apples in your local bodega. The berries in your local bodega,” he said.

Crimes surrounding bodegas compound the issue. Another problem is the recent string of crimes surrounding bodegas, such as a recent shooting in Fordham that left one dead and two injured.

In May, the 40th Precinct reported two bodega robberies. The 41st Precinct reported one bodega robbery. 

One employee at a bodega in Longwood, who declined to give his name because of his immigration status, said theft at his bodega has gone up in the past several months.

“We’re not only upset because people are stealing or starting fights, it’s disrespect to our business. We’re already struggling to survive because of the pandemic,” he said, adding that he’s afraid petty crimes will escalate into robberies or other violent crimes.

“It’s a shame because stores like ours used to be community hubs. We love seeing our neighbors come in to tell us about their day,” he continued. “Now, we don’t even feel safe in our own stores. How can we expect our customers to also feel safe here?”

Carmen Aponte, 53, owner of St. Michael’s Grocery, said that crime in the area has been another factor affecting business. Foot traffic on the street is low compared to pre-pandemic levels, she said, adding she thinks it’s because they are afraid to be out.

“What you do see is people on the streets up to no good,” said Aponte. “Just yesterday, they broke into the church in front of us.” She added that some people have stopped into the store and said that they were victims of theft on their commutes from work.

Francisco Marte, co-founder of the Bodega and Small Business group, and a bodega owner himself, said he has received complaints from bodega owners across the city about delayed police response times.

“By increasing response times in our communities, we can prevent a small theft from becoming a huge tragedy. This is what I wish for my fellow bodegueros,” he said.

New York City overall has about 8,000 bodegas, down from a pre-pandemic estimate of 13,000, according to Jose Bello, owner of the delivery app MyBodegaOnline. During the pandemic, he launched the app in an effort to help bodega owners across the city compete and survive.

Marte says the MyBodegaOnline app has helped his business by allowing him to compete with bigger food-delivery apps. With a decrease in foot traffic from remote workers and the elderly, who are cautious of going outside due to the pandemic, the app has helped him connect with his neighbors and keep his business afloat.

“These apps are attractive, especially to professionals who don’t always have the time to shop. Since my bodega joined the app, those are the people I see using it most,” said Marte.

The Longwood bodega employee confirmed that fewer customers are coming into the store, but said that even with an app like MyBodegaOnline, competing with lower prices found elsewhere has become harder.

“It’s more convenient to have something delivered directly to you, so our business would benefit from an app like this,” he said. “But with all of the costs we have to keep up with, with debt and rising prices, we can’t afford to keep the prices as they used to be. I don’t think we can charge the same prices for our food as cheaply as McDonald’s or another store.”

Bodegas saw little of the financial relief passed out in the early days of the pandemic because of the difficulties in applying for it.  Bello, Rodriguez and Marte all hope that Mayor Adams, who has shown an interest in bodegas, is able to change that and provide some help – both in the form of financial relief and increased security to prevent break-ins and robbery.

Moronta jokingly said that elected officials should “send us a few million dollars. We need them!” as he laughs and pickups the phone to take a call from a customer.