Photo: DeSean McClinton-Holland
With its constant stream of locals placing their regular orders: a sausage, an egg and cheese almost every morning for a neighbor who lives across the street; a grilled chicken sandwich for the senior who scolded the employees for not greeting her the last time she walked around the store (no one has forgotten since), BLACK BODEGA seems to be a staple in the neighborhood ever since years. In fact, the bodega, which is located two blocks east of the 167th Street station in the South Bronx, in the middle of a thoroughfare lined with apartment buildings and storefronts, has opened only two months ago.
The store is owned by former music director and Morrisania native Lenny “Alizé” Jones, who has collaborated on records with artists including Ginuwine, Puff Daddy and Tyrese, and has always dreamed of opening a bodega in its original neighborhood. It wasn’t until 2020, when the pandemic claimed thousands of lives and shut down several businesses in the South Bronx, that Jones realized it not only created a financial opening to launch the business – but it was the very reason it should. “A lot of times people are successful and shy away from the people who helped it, so it comes from a place where: I’m from the neighborhood, and now I’m able to create jobs,” said Jones, who grew up. a seven minute walk to the store. “Of course everyone wants to make money, but honestly that’s not the main goal here. This is something the community needed. “
Jones, his brother Robert Forbes and his childhood friend Rusheed Nash (both partners of the store) had initially hoped to settle at the intersection where they grew up: East 168th Street and Clay Avenue. It was also around here that he started the Beat Brokerz one-apartment recording studio in 2005, where rapper French Montana is said to have made his debut (the studio has since closed). But after another bodega rented the space they were looking for, Jones’ real estate agent suggested he visit the storefront on East 167th Street. “When I saw him I said, ‘Okay, that’s perfect.’ It’s literally the only restaurant in the area, ”Jones said. “So it’s not the block we wanted, but it’s stalled in a commercial area and we felt like we were filling a void.” After negotiating the rent of around $ 6,500 to $ 5,000 per month, Jones was able to hire more staff – seven in total, mostly from the neighborhood – who had lost their jobs during the pandemic. (He pays minimum wage, but says he intends to increase those rates after assessing the situation in the business in a few months.) One of the women who works at the cash register is a local who was fired from her job for a Harlem Nursery. Another employee, a cook from Queens, lost his job as a chef when the restaurant he worked in closed.
Since opening in late February, Jones has settled into a routine of walking to the store around 6:30 a.m., running for any supplies that might be low, and then settling down to manage the registry. Black bodega is open seven days a week from 6 a.m. to 11 p.m., but starting May 1, they will switch to 24-hour service to be available around the clock to neighbors. Like any bodega, you’ll find plenty of staples in the kitchen cabinets and neat rows of candy and snacks at the counter, all of which Jones says costs around 50 cents on the dollar cheaper than his neighborhood competitors. ; even the ATM fee is just a dollar. Jones figured out the prices and exactly what it took to stock his shelves after weeks of what he calls “scouting work” exploring bodegas across town. He also took to asking people about the strangest – but most useful – things they had ever bought in a bodega. “A guy said rust stain remover, which sounded like a stretch, but I said, ‘You know what, I’m going to get it.’ So I have two bottles of this crazy rust remover, and someday when someone needs it, they’ll be there. That’s really the goal: to be just what people need, ”he said.
Photo: DeSean McClinton-Holland
But there are also a lot of unique dishes that keep customers coming back. The main draw is undeniably the deli, with an intentionally minimal menu of a dozen hot and cold sandwiches that has already garnered a bit of a cult following. Among its best sellers is their chop cheese: the Bronx bodega classic made of ground beef grilled on a platter with peppers and onions, chopped with a metal spatula, covered in melted cheese and dressed in condiments like lettuce. , tomato and mayo ($ 4 on a roll or $ 6 on a hero). It’s already become a lunch mainstay for staff at the nearby barber shop, but the sandwich also attracted three friends from southern New Jersey who drove two hours for sandwiches after finding Black Bodega on Instagram. The only element that tops the ribbed cheese is the wings, which come in flavors like lemon pepper, garlic parmesan, barbecue, and buffalo (sweet or tangy); for a recent special, the deli made a honey-jack daniel’s sauce. On Black Bodega’s opening day, the store sold for 70 pounds of chicken wings, and since then has settled into selling 300 to 500 wings per day, at $ 4.50 a half-dozen. . Jones remembers a woman who said she walked a mile on a freezing February day just to order 35 wings – and then had to climb a hill to get home. On his own, another customer cut their wing inventory in half a day after buying a box of 100, then returned hours later for 125 more.
That the store is doing well – better than expected, even – has been thrilling for Jones. But what’s especially rewarding is being able to build the neighborhood in an area recovering from a difficult year, and help support the locals, even if only in small ways. . A woman who arrived one day with a child had no more than three dollars to pay for the sandwiches and juice she bought, Jones told her to pay the balance when she could. “You have to support the people who support you. For someone to come and spend their last bit of money at my store, it feels good to reciprocate, ”Jones said. Growing up, he frequented a bodega around the corner from his grandmother’s house. He remembers the woman at the checkout, Patricia, who gave him and his neighbors a small line of credit when they were running out of cash. “I wanted to replicate that sense of community,” he said.