Essential, overlooked and ‘tough’: Philly’s bodegas are fighting for survival

Ubiquitous and necessary, the corner store or bodega is a staple of modern urban life. Now these small businesses face unprecedented headwinds.

Rodriguez Grocery at 9th and Cumberland Streets in Philadelphia. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Rodriguez Grocery at 9th and Cumberland Streets in Philadelphia. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

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Every neighborhood has them.

The ubiquitous corner store, bodega, grocer or convenience store — that always seems to have whatever you need, whenever you need it.

Can of beans? Always. Toilet paper? By the roll. Milk and eggs? Of course.

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But that was all before COVID-19 changed everything for these necessities of urban life. Should you step foot into one now—if you’re allowed to go inside at all—things are a bit different. Owners are adapting their operations to survive, but business is slow and many are wondering how long they can stay open in this new way.

Substituting items, selling masks at wholesale prices

In North Philadelphia, Enerolina Melendez, owner of Rodriguez Grocery, is having a difficult time keeping her store stocked.

“I’ve had to substitute or replace items because they’re no longer available,” Melendez said. “There’s no rice, no oil, everything is limited.”

The few customers that are still coming in are purchasing the essentials, like soap, cleaning supplies and toilet paper, which has gone from $1 per roll to as high as $4 per roll at Melendez’s store. The price is “out of reach for many people in North Philly, which is one of the poorest areas of Philadelphia,” she said.

Melendez, who is a Dominican immigrant, says she sees customers get frustrated at the changing prices but there isn’t much she can do. “They think we’re taking advantage of the situation, they don’t think about the supply chain and how that has caused prices to go up,” she said.

Expensive toilet paper isn’t the only source of frustration. The state requirement that customers wear masks when entering any store or market, is another barrier for some, she said. “With coronavirus, it’s very hard to serve the people who frequent bodegas, many can’t even afford to buy masks,” she said.

To try to best serve her customers, Melendez decided to make masks available at the wholesale rate, for $1, but customers complained that it was still too expensive.

The mask mandate is a double-edged sword, she said. It offers safety in one way, but also brings anxiety. “You don’t know if people are coming in to rob the store or buy from the store,” she said. The fear is an added stressor on top of everything else.

Melendez has had to cut back the store’s hours, limit the hot food typically offered due to lack of customers, and confront an uncertain future.

“If things continue as they are, in two months, we’re going to have to close due to the fact that we won’t have anything to sell,” she said.

Melendez did not apply to any of the aid offered from the city to small businesses but that doesn’t mean she won’t need help down the line, she said.

“Our stores have been here, in good times and bad,” said Melendez. “And we’re staying open as essential businesses to serve people at the risk of our own health. I hope the city doesn’t forget that we also need protection.”

Switching to window service and sharing product photos

Over in Fishtown, one store is taking a creative approach to promoting that they’re still open for business.

D & C Grocery, which sits on Palmer and Thompson streets switched to window-only service at the end of March, a few weeks into the shutdown.

Fishtown’s D&C Grocery photographed all their products and started serving through a window during the coronavirus pandemic. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

“My business is very close to the school here, so when the schools closed, my business dropped a lot, at least by 50%,” said Dennis Chi, owner of the store since 2012, along with his wife, Cecilia Chan.

“I have children, kids in the house and a lot of people don’t really put that much focus into protection, social distancing, stuff like that,” he said. “So I discussed it with my wife and I told her that we have to close down.” he said. “But do window service.”

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That’s exactly what they did.

“When we started doing the window service, a lot of people came but they had no idea what we had,” he said. Even the regulars couldn’t recall specific products, they were used to browsing and having that in-store experience.

Since people couldn’t come inside the store, they brought the store outside to people in the form of photographs.

“It’s much easier,“ he said. “It helps a lot.”

Now, every morning when the store opens up, customers can browse photographs of the store’s aisles before placing an order underneath the store’s green awning.

Figuring out how to deliver

Sam Koun became owner of Deluxe Donuts in West Philadelphia on Market and 52nd Streets less than a year ago. He inherited the loyal customers from the owner before him — regulars would come in every morning to grab their coffee and breakfast before hopping on SEPTA and in the afternoon, kids would crowd into the shop to get their after-school treats.

He never imagined that as a new business owner, he would have to deal with the repercussions of dwindling sales as a direct result of a virus. “It was good until the pandemic hit,” he said.

Koun is grateful to be open right now, but “it’s pretty much a financial struggle” he said. “A high percentage of our customers are in the workforce,” Koun explained, and if those customers are laid-off or cannot leave the house, it’s a huge chunk of his business. “Even if we’re open, we still don’t make enough money to pay all of the expenses and also our living expenses.”

“It’s tough,” he said. So he’s trying to adapt and introduce delivery.

“We can go to our customers and at the same time offer that same great service to our customers, at their convenience, so that way they are safe,” Koun said. He’s currently exploring options and figuring out the best way to implement the service.

But making sales isn’t Koan’s only concern.

He wasn’t able to apply to the first round of grant and loan relief aid being offered to small businesses in the region. “It was difficult for me to understand,” he said. He wishes the government made it easier and more accessible.

Jennifer I. Rodríguez, president and CEO of the Greater Philadelphia Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, said that her organization has seen many small businesses in the region grapple with similar barriers.

“Language access is a significant challenge for Latino-owned businesses, especially at a time of crisis when information moves very fast and changes very quickly,” Rodríguez said.

Bodegas and other urban corner stores face technical challenges too, she said.

“The majority of bodegas are family businesses with few employees and may not employ CPAs to perform their financials,” Rodriguez said. “As a result, they may not have the required documentation for many of the financial assistance programs.”

Jesse Blitzstein, director of community and economic development at The Enterprise Center, said his organization has watched businesses in its West Philly community struggle with the fast-moving crisis. Enterprise is offering technical assistance via virtual office hours and flexible, low-interest loans.

“We have an emphasis on supporting minority-owned small businesses throughout the Philadelphia region, and want to especially support small businesses in our backyard in West Philadelphia in specific,”  Blitzstein said.

But that’s easier said than done.

“The community development portion of what we do traditionally relies so much on in-person outreach and engagement,” said Blitzstein. “So I think, like many of our peer organizations around the city, we are challenged by how to help our neighborhood businesses when you can’t go in a store and meet with the owner in person.”

In addition to these business challenges and needing help figuring out aid relief for his business, Koan is also concerned for his safety. Violence against Asian Americans has been on the rise. “It makes it hard for Asian Americans to service our customers,” said Koan, who is of Cambodian descent.

“People assume that we’re Chinese and we’re the cause of the virus. That stereotype, you know, hatred, causes us to be a little bit concerned as well.”

But despite the slow business and the potential dangers, Koan keeps going.

“What motivates me is that I need to provide for my family,” he said. “To make sure that they’re taken care of.”

But Koan also has a mantra that continues to motivate him. “I read somewhere, where it says, ‘tough times don’t last, but tough people do.’ So we’ll see where it goes from there.”

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