Jack Greenberg contributed to this reporting.
Since Francisco Marte took on his first bodega gig at only 18 years old, he has been a committed “bodeguero.” With over 30 years in the business, he is the proud owner of four bodegas in the Bronx and the founder of the Bodega and Small Business Association. In light of what he sees as “unfair competition” from ultrafast grocery delivery companies, he is taking a stand to defend the bodega industry.
The Bodega and Small Business Association and the United Bodegas of America are calling on the city to take action against “dark stores,” the mini warehouses full of food that fast grocery delivery companies are using to make their services possible. Some bodega leaders are also asking the city to provide them with the resources they need to further develop their home-grown delivery platform, My Bodega Online.
Buyk, Fridge No More, Gorillas and Jokr are just a few of the companies that entered the New York market between 2020 and 2021, with plans to expand. The companies often promise delivery in 15 minutes or less, a feat made possible by their model, in which delivery workers stock up at the many mini fulfillment centers or “dark stores” scattered across the city. Buyk recently announced its expansion into Brooklyn, Queens and the Bronx following a successful launch in Manhattan in September. It will now have a total of 20 “dark stores” throughout the city to ensure quick delivery to its customers.
According to Marte, these companies have an unfair competitive advantage over bodegas because of their financial backing from big tech investors. Without the need to make a profit right away, these companies, Marte said, are willing and able to offer major promotions and incentives in order to enter the market. Meanwhile, Marte added, bodegas are at a disadvantage because they aren’t able to overcome “significant losses” as they juggle ever-rising rents.
“We don’t want these companies to be like Uber, which showed up and destroyed the local industry. We have to prevent that so that the bodega industry doesn’t disappear,” said Marte.
At a minimum, bodega leaders are asking the city to regulate these “dark stores,” which they claim are sometimes operating off the grid in residential and commercial zones.
Walking into four bodegas in Bushwick and Ridgewood on Wednesday, it is clear that an awareness of ultrafast grocery delivery and its potential competition has yet to spread far. Leonardo Torres, a bodega worker on Wyckoff Avenue in Bushwick, said he hadn’t heard much about “dark stores.” He understands that technology is the way forward and can imagine a world in which he and other bodegueros may have to start offering delivery services, positing that those who don’t embrace technology may eventually get left behind.
In an email to Bushwick Daily via a communications agency, Buyk CEO James Walker suggested that the company is not competing with bodegas because it is targeting a different customer need. “Bodegas are an iconic part of New York City life, and I am a frequent bodega shopper myself. Buyk serves a different customer mission. When you have the time, there’s nothing quite like stopping by your local bodega for a hot sandwich and chat with the owner. However, when you don’t have the time to walk several blocks and back for a forgotten ingredient, or when you’re on back-to-back Zoom calls and simply don’t have the time to duck out, then ultrafast delivery is both incredibly convenient and fast. It can simplify your life while making the times when you go to a local store for that sandwich even more special,” Walker wrote.
Marte agrees that bodegas are a unique part of the New York City landscape. “Bodegas are part of the community. They provide a service to the community that goes beyond just selling goods. They are a refuge for the community,” said Marte. Still, he insists that “dark store” delivery companies like Buyk are direct competition.
Manhattan borough president Gale Brewer has asked city agencies to investigate whether “dark stores” are operating illegally. The NYC Department of Small Business Services did not respond to a request for comment in time for publishing.
Melissa Bradley, a professor of entrepreneurship at Georgetown University, an entrepreneur and an investor, understands the draw for these startups to enter local communities, but she doubts the outsiders will have the know-how to stay afloat.
“My initial reaction: it’s a good idea,” she said. “Historically in low-income communities, there’s a reliance on small, culturally-driven stores and businesses, because there’s no big businesses. Good for them, for identifying the opportunity.”
“From a cultural competency perspective, it makes me nervous,” Bradley added. “Part of the success of the bodegas is that they know the community. As a cofounder of a tech company and a venture capitalist, I know it’s hard to be competent at a regional level.”
Developing a home-grown delivery service: My Bodega Online
Since co-founding My Bodega Online at the beginning of the pandemic to provide bodega delivery to customers confined to their homes, Marte and his five collaborators in the South Bronx have wanted to develop the service further but have lacked the means to do so.
They are asking the city for help to make a competitive, home-grown delivery service possible. “We don’t have the support that we should have from the city and from the city’s elected officials and [we don’t have] the protection that the city and the state should give to businesses that are so essential to the community,” said Marte. He hopes that through the local bodega-run service, individual bodega owners will be able to compete with existing companies.
For now, the bodega leaders, with the support of YAMA (Yemeni American Merchants Association), which represents thousands of Yemeni-owned bodegas in the city, have launched an Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign, Save Bodegas with Technology. The campaign’s goal is to expand the My Bodega Online mobile app and train local bodega owners on the technology. The group plans to use funds to cover the costs of hardware, equipment and local marketing.
“Bodegas are unique to New York City, and we’re always there in the city’s most difficult moments. Like when Covid hit: the city shut down but we stayed open,” said Marte. He hopes that the city will give back to bodegas in the same way that bodegas have given back to the city.
Featured image: Tasha Sandoval. Bodegas, derived from the Spanish word for “storeroom” or “warehouse,” are classic New York City convenience stores.
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