Bodegas might be a New York City phenomenon. These small grocery stores offer convenience to countless neighborhoods, and they share similarities that go beyond cereal offerings. So for all of the non-New Yorkers (and locals who still don’t quite understand), here we answer the question “What is a bodega?” once and for all.

Table of Contents

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    The History of NYC Bodegas

    The name bodega originates from the Spanish word — which can mean “storeroom,” “wine cellar,” or “grocery store.” The majority of them were opened by Latinx immigrants who came to New York after World War II and desired a local convenience store that they could run to daily. New Yorkers as a whole took to the idea, and these small shops multiplied.

    What’s a Bodega?

    A bodega is a small convenience store that sells staples like chips, candy, coffee, sodas, lottery tickets, and over-the-counter remedies, along with household items like laundry detergent and trash bags. Some have a deli counter, some sell beer, and some have neither, but what defines them goes beyond any one product.

    Most are open 24/7, ensuring that you’ll always have access to ramen and detergent in even the direst situations (e.g., if you’re doing laundry while hungry in the middle of the night). They’re also ubiquitous, with more than 8,000 bodegas spread across New York’s five boroughs. The number isn’t 100% certain, because the health department only recognizes 7,104, but the number is probably much higher. Thanks to all those bodegas, if you need to pick up something after a night out, you can do so at 4 a.m. without leaving your neighborhood. 

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    What’s a Bodega Cat?

    As all NYC locals know, many bodegas also have cats. Although some shoppers don’t appreciate their presence, bodega cats actually serve a larger good: exterminating rodents, whose presence (trust us) is less favorable than even the grouchiest feline.

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    Can I Send Packages to My Local Bodega?

    But perhaps the strangest concept for visitors to understand is that bodegas are neighborhood landmarks. Locals often know the owners and workers, and can sometimes count on these stores to accept packages and hold onto keys for visitors in lieu of a doorman. They’re open 24/7, and therefore very reliable. Many of these store owners are more than happy to help, and it’s common practice to pay a small thank-you fee for any not-strictly-bodega-related activity.

    Other Things to Know About Bodegas

    Many of them usually have a credit card minimum, so make sure to bring cash, or you’ll find yourself doubling up on ice cream and cookie dough — not a tragic outcome by any means, but good to remember. Also, you can’t assume that most of these shops stock beer, as some simply sell soft drinks and juices. Luckily, there’s usually another bodega right down the block with everything else you’re searching for. And if you’re new in town or need some help finding an electrician or handyman, think about looking to your local bodega team for advice. As mentioned above, they can often help with receiving packages, and their local knowledge can extend much further than you might expect.

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    The Future of Bodegas

    Although bodegas are an NYC staple, that doesn’t mean they’re thriving; in fact, the opposite is unfortunately true. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, a slew of bodegas and other small businesses have closed. In the previous few years before the pandemic, many local stores have been forced to close due to rising rents and chain store competition. And in 2017, two ex-Google employees began a startup app, “Bodega,” which involved selling convenience store items from automated boxes. Many reacted angrily, criticizing the team for appropriating the bodega name and trying to put these mom-and-pop shops out of business. Even after rebranding to “Stockwell” in 2019, the brand went under in 2020. After all, locals love these shops; they’re a crucial part of the New York neighborhood landscape. And despite the hardships and competition facing them, they’re not going anywhere any time soon.