There was one month in the mid-nineties when Rafael Perez saw seven people killed in front of his store on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. ‘I saw a guy – they killed him for $10,’ says the 61-year-old, standing behind the cash register at Chinese Hispanic Grocery, the neighborhood bodega that he's run for the past 38 years.
Nearly everything about the Lower East Side has changed drastically since Rafael first arrived from the Dominican Republic five decades ago – everything except the Chinese Hispanic Grocery store that he runs. ‘We're the same family-run business as in 1984,’ says Rafael, as he counts out money with the effortlessness of someone who's handled a fortune's worth of small bills in his lifetime. ‘The neighbors – they like us; we understand each other.’
Of course, it's not that the store never changes: the beer selection in the fridge has expanded to include craft IPAs, and the cigarettes behind the register are now accompanied by JUUL vape pods. But Rafael chalks his decades of success up to one thing: reliability. ‘We know what people need, and we keep it here for them,’ he says.
In New York, bodegas play an important role in the life of the city. It's where you go to buy your groceries and your morning coffee; it's your pharmacy when you're sick and your hardware store when the sink breaks. It's also a social club and gathering place, which is why Rafael converted the store's basement into a makeshift cantina (bar) where, on any given night, you'll find 20 to 30 people shooting pool, playing dominoes and arguing over the sound of traditional Dominican music. For many of his customers, Rafael's smiling face is the one consistent thing in a city of breakneck transformation.
‘He's part of the furniture here; he's family,’ says Jamal Salam, one of Rafael's regular customers. ‘This is community. If you're short a dollar, he gives you a dollar.’ On his success, Rafael says: ‘The store is old-fashioned, and that's the way people like it.’ In a city that often feels like it's out to get you, sometimes the best service a business can offer is making you feel at home.
For our ‘25 big lessons from small business’ series, we scoured the world to find inspiring people to share the lessons they've learned from running their own companies. Click here to read the other stories.
This special feature was first published in Courier issue 45, February/March 2022. To purchase the issue or become a subscriber, head to our webshop.