Washington Heights Bodegas Adjust to Fresh Produce Amid a Changing Population

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The streets of Washington Heights are filled with bodegas, small grocery stores usually owned by Latino families, some for generations. The Spanish word “bodega” can be interpreted as cellar, pantry or grocery store, among other things.

In the quickly shifting neighborhood, some bodega owners say turning a profit becomes tougher each year. According to a report by the New York City Comptroller, Scott M. Stringer, Hispanics made up nearly 68 percent of the Washington Heights, Inwood and Marble Hill population in 2015. The white population grew 61 percent from 2000 to 2015, according to the same report, while black and Hispanic populations dropped during the same period.

Shop owners say things like rising rents are pushing their longtime customers, Latino families, out of the area. Rents in the area went up about 13 percent between 2005 and 2014, according to New York University’s Furman Center.

In an effort to bring in more shoppers, some bodega owners are starting to offer fresh produce. Others are sticking with what has worked for them in the past: keeping shops stocked with basic household goods, treats from the home country and other snacks and drinks.

New York’s small business department and the City Harvest, the food rescue group, launched a series of workshops to train owners across the city in better marketing and leadership strategies. Food rescue involves collecting excess food from supermarkets and restaurants, especially produce, before it is thrown away, and delivering it for use in places like soup kitchens.

In the Washington Heights area, a session geared towards Spanish-speaking bodega owners will be held on June 1 at the Business Solutions Washington Heights Center, on 560 W. 181st Street.

In 2015, Washington Heights, Inwood and Marble Hill collectively ranked second among Manhattan neighborhoods with the largest meal gaps, the city’s measure of food insecurity, according to a 2016 report by the Food Bank of New York City. The term food insecurity refers to difficulty gaining access to nutritionally adequate foods.

A City Harvest senior manager, Christa Perfit, said bodegas play a key role in addressing food insecurity. “Corner stores, specifically, are such an essential part of the neighborhood, and they’re such an access point for food,” she said. The group hopes to increase the availability of fresh produce in the area, but store owners must first stabilize their businesses to be able to afford to offer fresher products.

While making the transition to fresh foods might offer a saving grace to some bodega owners, others think the government intervention in their businesses is a little too late.

At New Generation Mini Market, a bodega on Sherman Avenue in Washington Heights where customers call employees "familia," there is not an extensive fresh food section. Alexandra Moreo/NYT Institute

Stocking for the Newcomers

As salsa crooner Eddie Santiago’s “Lluvia” plays in the background, Ramon Cruz, an employee at Alegria Grocery and Candy, sells a customer four beers, the most popular item in the store’s inventory, according to Mr. Cruz, 45. The store, at 112 Nagle Avenue, also sells a collection of cheeses, Latin American-branded snacks and even a container of dulce de leche treats. The mashup of international and American product labels reads like a Spanish-to-English dictionary.

Alegria’s managers have already changed their stock, though. Increasingly, people who come into his shop, often newcomers to the community, come looking for fresh produce, options the bodega started carrying around a year ago.

“That’s one of the things that we are trying to at least increase, because a lot of white people have moved in and they like all of those things,” he said. “So then we try to find a way to understand people. One tries to get the merchandise people need.”

Though his shop is trying to attract new business by offering produce, Mr. Cruz said he was unaware of the workshop run by the small business department and City Harvest. He said he never expected members of New York City’s government to help his business.

“There’s nothing here to help set up a business,” he said. “That’s what’s making many small businesses close, because they don’t have help from the government’s system.”

Sticking to Old Ways

Carlos Cabral, 54, has been working at New Generation Mini Market on 242 Sherman Street for 25 years. He’s seen the ways rising rents have changed the neighborhood, pushing out the Latino families who make up his customer base. “But there’s not much we can do about that,” he said.

While selling a mother a pack of fruit snacks for her toddler, Mr. Cabral said the best strategy to hold on to their customers was to “follow the rule book.”

Overall, Mr. Cabral said, the store doesn’t plan to change its inventory to pander to a new crowd.
“It’s extra work, and I’ve been here for 25 years, it’s too much work,” he said. He believes his customers will remain loyal.

Customers shop for fresh produce at Fresco por Menos. The bodega's owner, Jeff Arici, said he goes to a market every night to buy fresh fruits and vegetables. Alexandra Moreo/NYT Institute

Fresh for Less

After working at an Amish Market for 25 years, Jeff Arici opened his own bodega, “Fresco por Menos,” or “Fresh for Less,” on 98 Nagle Avenue.

On a recent Saturday evening, a customer introduced herself as his neighbor, saying she lived in the building where he rents. When she was short a dollar for her groceries, he told her not to worry, just pay it back later.

To Mr. Arici, customer service, low prices and around-the-clock hours are the key to staying afloat in an ever-changing neighborhood. That and keeping the fruits and vegetables in his shop fresh.

“I am not scared of the competition, because I know I go every night to market. I buy, you know, every day, so I keep low prices,” he said.

Unlike other stores on the block, Mr. Arici’s shop is bursting with an assortment of fruits and vegetables: A pound of eggplant costs 99 cents, a pound of green, red or black seedless grapes about $1.99.

Sally Arias, another shopper who also lives in the building, congratulated Mr. Arici on his new shop as she waited in the checkout line. The low prices, especially for fresh produce, are rare in the neighborhood, Ms. Arias said. “It’s awesome, I’ll come here every day to buy little things.”