There are plastic containers on the counter with Caribbean coconut candies, Reds Apple Ales in the fridge, European chocolates, and Doritos. People are usually coming in and out of the store at all hours and buying everything from chips to bacon egg and cheese sandwiches.
Though business is usually good, Espinoza is one of the many bodega owners across NYC who is feeling the pinch of rising rents.
“When I started I paid $ 1,500 in rent, but now I pay $3,600,” said Espinoza in Spanish. “Some bodegas pay a lot more than that and it’s hard to do compensate for all of that during slower months.”
Once on practically every street corner, bodegas are closing or struggling across New York City due to an expensive real-estate market that makes their rents go up, and the high cost of running a small business in the city.
According to a survey that was compiled by the Bodega Association of the United States Inc, out of a little under 400 bodegas across the city, 67% of bodegas said that they were unstable. 61% stated that they were at risk of closing for reasons excluding illness or retirement. And over 80% of them stated that one of the reasons for that was higher rents and “unreasonable lease terms.”
Zulay Mateo, the executive director of the Bodega Association of the United States said that a lot of bodega owners are learning how to be flexible and how to constantly check if there are new products that customers may like. She said that being flexible and learning new things helped so many other locations stay open.
“We just have to make the store owners more aware so that they can run an efficient business,” she said. “Right now bodegas are trying to sell more healthy food.”
Despite getting a lot of business from the different groups of immigrants in his neighborhood, Espinoza said competition is getting tighter. He says his best costumers are mainly African Americans, Latinos and other immigrants, at least before many of them were displaced in recent years. Espinoza says that many of the new residents coming to the gentrifying neighborhood don’t buy a whole lot from his store.
“People who have been around for longer are friendlier and Latinos are just open to coming back if they know you,” said Espinoza. “The new people mainly get beer and small stuff, not a whole lot of things at once.”
Espinoza agreed that expanding and learning new things is important. In order to stay afloat for difficult months, he has had to modify the location to sell more hot food, fruits and vegetables, and even expand fridge space for trendy energy drinks, cold Starbucks coffees, Gatorades, and other trendy drinks.
According to “Scale up New York: Creating Middle Class Jobs by Growing New York City’s Small Businesses” a study from the Center for an Urban Future, Espinoza’s store isn’t the only small location that can’t pay a whole lot. It highlights that businesses with less than 20 employees can pay an average wage of $49,091. It’s a little over half of what companies with more than 500 workers pay employees.
But Espinoza said that investing in all that raises his expenses and that he pays increasingly more for electricity, garbage removal, and keeping up with the stock. It makes it harder for him to hire workers or pay them a better wage.
“The thing is that it’s a lot of work and I can’t pay them that much,” he said. “If I get sick, the place will have to close until I get better.”
Steve Barrison, a spokesperson for the Small Business Congress says that it’s not just other stores that are affected, but also those stores, ability to hire more workers.
“How are we supposed to have more economic growth if those locations can’t expand?” he said. “Some of them are barely surviving, and they’re important for Latino communities, we need them to thrive.”
Small businesses like bodegas are worth preserving and protecting in NYC. In 2014 a report by the Center for an Urban Future titled “Small Business Success”, businesses like bodegas that have 0 to 4 employees “had a net gain of 31,421 jobs between 2000 and 2013 while business with more than 500 employees had a net loss of 5,022 jobs.”
Barrison, is also a supporter of the Small Business Jobs Survival Act, a bill that aims to give franchises like bodegas a 10-year lease so that they can better plan their future. He think’s [NO APOSTROPHE] it IS essential for places like bodegas to have longer leases.
“How is a store owner supposed to put the money into updating or changing their store if they don’t know where they’ll be in a year or two,” he said.
Mateo hopes that her organization’s efforts combined with others helps keep bodegas open all over the five boroughs.
“Bodegas are part of the community, it’s where you go in the morning, you can feel comfortable leaving a pair of keys there,” said Mateo. “They’re a big part of NYC so we need to help them stay here.”
Espinoza agrees, though he doesn’t fear being removed, he knows of other store owners in the area who were made to vacate in short notice and were at a loss about what to do or how to keep their customers when they moved.
He said he’s looking forward to retiring soon, since owning a small business is a lot harder than it looks, especially with all of the added on expenses that have increased recently.
“If anyone might want to open one, they should really think about it,” he said. “It’s getting harder and harder, but it’s what I do.”