NYDailyNews: The Bigger Threat to our Bodegas

From NYDailyNews:

PRE-ARTICLE CLARIFICATION: Bloomberg raised the cigarette tax from 80 cents a carton to $15 a carton which is much more than the 150% pointed out in the article, which led to a 60% drop in sales overnight.

There are around 13,000 bodegas in New York City, and their continued survival has periodically been questioned by media analysts, and even sympathetic observers. There is no doubt that the small grocery store is facing serious economic and political headwinds.

A new proposal to replace the bodega from a pair of privileged Google refugees, while worth lambasting, is the least of concerns for the average bodeguero .

As one would expect from two Silicon Valley expats, the plan — in the form of a disruptive tech company called Bodega — would put automated kiosks in apartment buildings, gyms and many other places, selling food and other corner-store staples.

The founders dream of ubiquitous, sophisticated vending machines that let people buy whatever they need without ever stepping out of their building, or talking to a human being.

Of course, since the ex-Googlers have simply no idea about our culture and the challenging logistics of the urban marketplace, they fail to understand the simple impracticality of their proposal — not to mention the effrontery of trying to use technology to replace immigrant entrepreneurs who have used the corner grocery store as an economic ladder.

For one, the technology behind Bodega with a capital B is not universally available to the traditional bodega shopper. Their reliance on SNAP benefits — what many people still call food stamps — creates what one would call, in a more sophisticated setting, a barrier to entry.

And, no matter how many cameras are installed inside these space-age kiosks, we must wonder about the fate of any unattended machine in buildings found in the neighborhoods where the bodega is still a retail cornerstone.

If the Bodega founders only want their product in the safest and wealthiest neighborhoods — well, that’s another problem.

More significantly, the replacement plan fails to take into account is the role that bodegas play in the life of low-income immigrant communities — and especially in the lives of Hispanic immigrants.

Small, friendly and convenient, bodegas are more than businesses. They are neighborhood institutions woven into the fabric of the lives of their neighborhoods. The bodega is a meeting place where people are often treated as family. Storeowners often offer credit and, in a pinch , act as babysitters.

In response to the obesity epidemic in many low-income neighborhoods, the Bodega Association that I head has launched, in partnership with local health groups, a Healthy Bodega program to offer healthier food options to our customers. In doing so, we send a message that we are not simply business people but members of the community and concerned for its welfare.

But as tone-deaf and off-target as Bodega the company is, we must be clear: There are bigger threats to our existence in the here and now.

We face real concerns like the threat of family and friends being deported, high taxes and overregulation. The impact of the Great Recession is still being felt in our struggling neighborhoods. As rents rise, foreclosures and store closings continue to become even more serious.

New York City could be helping us succeed, but too often local government does the opposite. One glaring example: tobacco sales. In 2002, right before then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg raised the cigarette tax by a whopping 150%, the sale of tobacco products accounted for a large chunk of a bodega’s revenue. At the time, we warned the mayor that the tax wouldn’t so much reduce sales as shift these sales to the black market.

That’s exactly what happened. In the last 15 years, more and more cigarette sales have shifted to the street. Whatever one thinks about the health-related issues, this lost revenue, added to the other fiscal concerns, severely impacts the viability of the city’s small grocery stores — not to mention the city’s tax coffers.

If these challenges weren’t enough, New York City recently implemented a civil forfeiture campaign that used the NYPD to close bodegas and confiscate their goods without the benefit of due process for the storeowners. This threat was met with a class-action lawsuit as we tried to get the city to back off from yet another obstacle to our business survival.

It’s ironic that a city that talks a great game about protecting the little guy can’t even pass the Small Business Survival Act — which would give storeowners leverage to hold down rents when their leases expire. Yet it can launch an aggressive and, we believe, extralegal law enforcement action against struggling storeowners.

Given the menu of serious bodega survival challenges in this city, pardon us for not being intimidated by or focused on these tech upstarts. In fact, their effort inspires laughter. Wait until they face the full gamut of the New York City regulatory edifice — if they even get that far.

Murphy, the president of the Bodega Association of the United States, owns a bodega in Manhattan.

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