It didn’t quite happen overnight, but bodega and corner store owners on the Lower East Side have been waking up to a new reality — one where 15-minute grocery delivery drivers zip through the streets, dispatching to customers the scattered household staples that used to be the bodega’s niche. As e-bike and scooters pass by, they’re watching as several venture-capital backed start-ups — like JOKR, getir, Buyk — are now undercutting them on prices, and offering huge discounts on service in an attempt to dominate the rapid delivery market.

"These bodegas are facing the ultimate threat from these 15-minute delivery apps,” said Christopher Marte, the new City Council member for the Lower East Side.

Marte grew up working in a bodega not far from the one he stood outside of last week on the corner of Rivington and Suffolk Street. As a teenager, he stocked shelves in the store his Dominican immigrant-family owned, he saw how they, and his community at large, were held together by the bodega. It was where neighborhood news was passed, where people could get a hot meal on a cold day, grab shovels to dig out their walkways, and where the grocery stock was able to accommodate the community, selling vegetables and goods from their home countries that weren’t always on offer in larger stores.

Now he’s worried these small businesses could be forced down a dark path — one that immigrant business owners, many from the same Yemeni and Dominican communities that once bought price-inflated taxi medallions, are still reeling from.

A bodega on the LES.

A bodega on the LES.

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A bodega on the LES.
Scott Heins / Gothamist

“What we saw with Uber and Lyft, and how it disrupted the taxi and limousine service, we're seeing the same patterns with this,” he said.

He said he worries about commercial rents rising as sales continue to lag behind pre-pandemic numbers, leading to bodega owners going broke, unable to pay off the huge debts they need to rack up just to run their businesses. Right now, bodega owners don’t have the data on how the new delivery companies have affected their businesses, but they don’t want to wait for sales to dip before organizing and asking elected officials to take action.

The new grocery delivery companies allow customers to place orders using their phones, often without any ordering minimum. Users are able to get products as small as a single onion, or as large as a full grocery list, at their door in 15 minutes (and often less).

“The bodegas can’t compete with them. They’re eliminating the human interaction of getting goods and services,” said Frank Gonzalez, co-founder of the Lower East Side Small Business Alliance, which came together during the pandemic to help small businesses access relief programs. “Immigrants work hard and create generational wealth through these small businesses. Local vendors work with these small businesses, creating even more opportunities for the community.” Gonzalez says he's worried that if bodegas were to shutter, older people and non-English speakers would have a tough time navigating the apps they would need to order food and other necessities.

The sheer amount of companies that have sprung up on city streets in the past few months is staggering. JOKR, Gorillas, Gopuff, Fridge No More, Buyk, and others, are competing for the patronage of people who have become accustomed to delivery culture, which exploded during the pandemic. But while meal delivery companies like Grubhub and Uber Eats work with existing restaurants to source their meals, instant delivery services have set up storage hubs across the city, where delivery drivers are handed pre-packed bags of groceries and immediately dispatched to waiting customers. Although these hubs are popping up all over the city, there has been a concentration of them in Manhattan. A December study commissioned by then-Borough President Gale Brewer found that 25 of these hubs were operating in Manhattan, with many concentrated below 14th street.

Getir delivery bike on the LES.

Getir delivery bike on the LES.

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Getir delivery bike on the LES.
Scott Heins / Gothamist

Just across the street from the Stop 1 Deli on the Lower East Side, is one of those delivery hubs, on the unfinished ground floor of a new luxury condo. Run by Gopuff (which received a $1 billion dollar round of investment this past summer), the hub looks almost exactly like a grocery store, with products lining shelves on orderly rows. But instead of prices and coupon offers, there’s just barcodes, as Gopuff employees and contractors swiftly circulate to fill incoming orders.

These hubs are where local business owners and politicians feel that the companies are stepping outside the bounds of the law. According to research done by now-Council Member Gale Brewer’s office, these hubs could fall outside of local zoning rules. Because they’re essentially warehouses, they should be confined to zoning that’s mostly found along the West Side of Manhattan, where warehouses have traditionally been located on the island for over a century. Instead, they’re now often found alongside local retail businesses, with some occupying storefronts that have gone vacant during the pandemic.

Using mapping technology, Gale's office and BetaNYC found the sites that fall outside of proper zoning regulations.

Using mapping technology, Gale's office and BetaNYC found the sites that fall outside of proper zoning regulations.

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Using mapping technology, Gale's office and BetaNYC found the sites that fall outside of proper zoning regulations.
Courtesy Gale Brewer's office

In a letter to the city’s Department of Buildings in October 2021, Brewer wrote that these stores, which are often not accessible to the public, “deaden our streetscapes, as windows are sometimes papered over and there is no ability to actually enter and shop, thereby reducing foot traffic, which ultimately impacts adjacent small businesses.”

At the Gopuff hub on Rivington Street, employees told Gothamist that recently, a new “walk-in” grocery store was built for the community to use, where they could pick up orders they placed online, or browse a small selection of groceries at the front of the store. The aisles with the rest of the groceries were still off-limits. A Gopuff spokesperson refused to respond on the record to questions about the company’s use of retail spaces.

In response to a request for comment on the zoning concerns, a Gopuff spokesperson, who refused to be identified, said that the company’s stores operate within local laws, take "corrective action" when needed and provide regular guidance to employees on how best to provide both the walk-in and delivery experience.

Inside the Gopuff delivery warehouse on the LES.

Inside the back of Gopuff's warehouse storefront

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Inside the back of Gopuff's warehouse storefront
Scott Heins / Gothamist
Inside Gopuff's warehouse storefront.

Inside Gopuff's warehouse storefront.

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Inside Gopuff's warehouse storefront.
Scott Heins / Gothamist
Inside Gopuff's warehouse storefront.

Inside Gopuff's warehouse storefront.

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Inside Gopuff's warehouse storefront.
Scott Heins / Gothamist

It’s possible without the use of these spaces, these 15-minute delivery companies would be unable to follow through on the very promise of speedy delivery, or push their workers ever harder to make sure the delivery was received on time. At the Gopuff hub on the Lower East Side, many of the workers were from the community itself, a mix of independent contractors and employees. Unlike their food delivery counterparts, rapid delivery companies tend to use employees as delivery drivers, as the time it would take for an independent delivery driver to accept a delivery would slow down the already-tight process.

Marte, the Council Member, thinks that the city needs to step up its targeting of hubs that might be in operation outside of local zoning laws, before they pop up elsewhere in the city.

“We can’t wait. We have to be proactive, because this will spread to northern Manhattan, the outer-boroughs, we need to take action immediately,” he said.

He’s also working with the Lower East Side Small Business Alliance to craft legislation that would both bolster bodegas, and provide more protections for workers for the 15-minute delivery companies.

Fridge No More's warehouse storefront.

Fridge No More's warehouse storefront.

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Fridge No More's warehouse storefront.
Scott Heins / Gothamist
A Buyk delivery worker seen on the LES.

A Buyk delivery worker seen on the LES.

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A Buyk delivery worker seen on the LES.
Scott Heins / Gothamist
Delivery workers for Fridge No More.

Delivery workers for Fridge No More.

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Delivery workers for Fridge No More.
Scott Heins / Gothamist

Gothamist spoke to a delivery driver, who asked to remain anonymous because he wasn’t authorized to speak by the company for which he’s an independent contractor. The driver is a native New Yorker who’s been working for delivery companies for the past six years. He owns his own bike and said he loves being able to ride around the city all day.

“This is the best job I’ve ever had,” the driver told Gothamist. “The deliveries are easy because the hubs already have the groceries ready and they’re right there. Most of my deliveries take under 10 minutes.”

The driver estimates he makes around $600 a day, working shifts as long as 14 hours, even though he’s not obligated to. He said the money is too good to pass up and sometimes he even sleeps in his car so he can easily get back to the hub to make more deliveries.

From his perspective, he doesn’t feel as if these 15-minute delivery companies are competing with the local bodegas.

“I don’t deliver to anyone from the neighborhood, really. These are hungover young people looking for pedialyte, snacks, and toilet paper. They really would be shopping at one of the bigger grocery stores, anyway,” he said.

And it’s not all doom and gloom at the local bodega, either. On a recent rainy Thursday at the Stop 1 Deli on Rivington, construction workers, young people puffing on Juuls, and women in suits looking for an iced coffee on a cold and dreary morning, huddled around the counter at the bodega, picking up what they needed to get through the day.

Dylan Carrillo opened his grocery bag to show off some Monster Energy drinks, chips, and a container of ham he had just purchased. He lives right above the Gopuff hub, but says he goes to this bodega everyday. He estimates he gets half of his groceries at the bodega, and the other half at the nearby Trader Joe’s or Target.

For him, the 15-minute delivery offers aren’t quick enough. “This took five minutes, which is quicker than 15. It’s right there, and I like carrying my own things. Plus, there’s no service fees.”

A bodega on the LES.

Stop 1 Deli on Rivington Street

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Stop 1 Deli on Rivington Street
Scott Heins / Gothamist

Jose Rodriguez, 26, owns the Stop 1 Deli, buying it two years ago after he had worked there for several years. He doesn’t blame the 15-minute delivery companies for operating across the street from him or even undercutting his own prices by using investment capital to buy quantities in bulk. The bigger problems for him right now are the rising costs of goods, while he has to keep prices low for his customers.

“We should be the cheaper place to shop for the community, but that’s just not the case right now,” he said, explaining that you won’t get anywhere by fighting innovation. “You can’t knock on someone else’s business because they have more money than us. They have way more products than us, they’re cheaper than us, and they deliver it to your house.”

Rodriguez doesn’t see himself in competition with these rapid-delivery apps, some of whom have already burned through their investment and are possibly looking to get out of the market.

“My customers are the construction workers, people on the way to school, people going to local jobs. People who have no fixed address during the day to accept a delivery,” he said. “What would help me the most is the pandemic ending and prices going down. That’s more important to me than taking down huge companies. You can’t fight good ideas.”