A piece of advice for anyone considering a move to New York: don’t mess with bodegas.
The celebrated stores – which vary widely but generally function as convenience stores, delis, food markets and coffee shops – have been a city staple for decades, inspiring unwavering loyalty from locals: “If you’re not cool with your corner store guy, you’re not from New York,” as one worker told NPR.
Given New Yorkers’ outspoken nature – and social media’s insistence on an equal and opposite reaction to any strong opinion – Twitter and other sites periodically become a hotbed of bodega-focused discourse. In April, for instance, a viral post about a shop’s generosity with butter sparked an outpouring of love for shopkeepers’ resourcefulness, as well as eye-rolling over the obsession with the stores: “Why do New Yorkers always act like they’ve uncovered one of life’s great mysteries when they have basic human interactions?”
The latest chapter in the saga involves a young man from Michigan, who invited New Yorkers’ fury with a TikTok video mocking the shops. He says he put “grocery store” into Apple maps, but every one he went to was instead a bodega where he could only get “cereal and ramen” for dinner.
“Y’all Midwest people cannot tell the difference between a GROCERY STORE and a damn bodega,” read one response. Another user replied: “This is exactly why when transplants move in we start to see a shift of small mom and pop shops closing down. If you wanted a Whole Foods you should’ve moved your ass to an area that has Whole Foods.” (Soon after Twitter users began contacting the man’s employer, it announced that he had been fired.)
The man had clearly struck a nerve. But what is it about bodegas that fuels such deep devotion? Along with New Yorkers’ daily rhapsodizing, the stores have been the subjects of TikTok tributes with millions of views. A Saturday Night Live sketch, led by Kenan Thompson as a singing cat, lovingly mocks the idea of using a less-than-sanitary bodega bathroom while comparing the humble shop to Willy Wonka’s magical chocolate factory. And when a tech startup suggested it could replace the stores with vending machines – adding insult to injury by dubbing itself Bodega – the backlash was brutal. “It’s sacrilegious to use that name, and we’re going to do whatever we need to do to fight this,” Frank Garcia, chair of the New York State Coalition of Hispanic Chambers of Commerce, told the Guardian at the time.
There’s the convenience: many are open 24 hours, meaning residents of the city that never sleeps are never up too late to get a sandwich. There’s the character: the figure of the bodega cat, for instance, is familiar enough to merit an Instagram account, merchandise and a Wikipedia page. There’s the unpredictable selection of items, ranging from snacks to candles to Plan B pills (though nutrition experts as well as Mayor Eric Adams are concerned about limited access to affordable, healthy food, especially in lower-income neighborhoods). But perhaps most important is the role of the stores as pillars of the community.
The Spanish word “bodega” translates to “cellar”. It was used in New York to describe wine shops in the late 19th century and grocery stores a few decades later, writes the Yale law professor Stephen Carter in Bloomberg. But it was after the second world war that the city’s bodega culture began to blossom, linked to a growing Puerto Rican population, according to the historian Carlos Sanabria. Along with providing goods, the shops offered an opportunity to forge community in a new home.
Though bodega ownership has spread far beyond Puerto Rican communities – today approximately half of New York bodegas are owned by Yemeni Americans – a sense of belonging remains integral to their identity, says Frank Marte, owner of Green Earth Food Deli Grocery in the Bronx and a leader of the Bodega and Small Business Group. “The bodegas are like an extension of a community house or apartment,” he says. When people are bored, “they go to the corner store, they have a beer, they talk”. When customers come in, “you shake their hand, you give a hug, you give a kiss … It’s like a family relation that you build in your community.”
Even at the height of the pandemic, the stores remained devoted to their neighborhoods. “When the city shut down, we stayed open, serving the community, especially the low-income community,” says Marte, who took over his brother’s store after arriving at age 18 from the Dominican Republic. “A lot of the bodegueros [who run the stores], they got sick. Some of them died. And we still were giving service.”
With at-risk family members at home, some bodegueros slept in their stores for fear of spreading Covid, he says. Meanwhile, they helped their neighborhoods in ways that went far beyond the call of duty. “When the customer comes and doesn’t have money, they still got the merchandise, they still got the food. If they have some problems, they come to talk to the bodega owner. When they are depressed, they come to the bodega owners.” Owners would even watch children when their parents weren’t home.
It wasn’t Marte’s first time facing significant risk. Early in his career, when crime was high, he says, he was shot three different times by would-be robbers. “But I always keep going; I always keep being a bodeguero,” he says. He has since launched a campaign for public safety.
Other cities have similar corner stores, but in New York, the stores are “icons”, Marte says. They have helped struggling neighborhoods, providing jobs to local people. “When the supermarkets or the big box stores didn’t come to New York because it was too dangerous, we were there.”
And New Yorkers appreciate it. On Twitter, people describe being given free snacks when they forget their wallets, having clerks open multipacks of plastic cups so customers can grab a free handful, and being given bodegueros’ personal matchbooks while prepping for Hurricane Sandy because the store didn’t sell them.
Some find the sheer quantity of NYC gushing a little off-putting. Replying to the butter tweet, one user noted they had driven “12 minutes to Costco the other day and walked out with four bricks of butter. Side perk: Didn’t have to breathe hot wet subway air coming through the sidewalks.”
But Costco’s only open till 8.30.