ST. PETERSBURG — “Mira! Look! There are holes everywhere,” the bodega owner says, walking through the narrow aisles.
Over there, by the freezer, should be crates of Conchita coconut water. He used to sell 15 cases a week. Now he can’t get two.
Across from the sodas, there’s an empty shelf where the yerba mate used to sit. For six months, he’s been trying to restock the Argentinian tea.
Cooking oil, blood pudding, pigeon peas are all missing.
“It’s been rough. Really rough,” says Freddy Castillo, 59, who owns Orlando Latin Market.
He has been working in bodegas for more than 40 years. Last year was the hardest yet. January was worse.
He can’t keep his shelves full, can’t get some products at all. Prices on everything keep rising. And little bodegas like his, without storage to ride out supply chain shortages, can’t compete.
He used to know when he placed an order it would be filled, even during the first year of the pandemic. Now, he asks for 110 sacks of rice and gets five.
He’s heard cargo ships are stuck because there aren’t enough workers to unload them. Someone told him truckers are scarce, so groceries can’t get delivered. He’s seen reports of meat-packing plants crippled by COVID. Is that why he can’t get chicken thighs?
“The Goya truck comes tomorrow,” he says. His largest supplier. He needs salsa verde, green split peas and rice. Lots of rice.
• • •
The bodega is on 30th Avenue N, next to a laundromat. Landscaping trucks and pickups crowd the parking lot. There’s nowhere to sit outside, but elderly men sip cafe con leche by the ice machine, chatting in Spanish.
Flags flutter over the front window: Cuba, Colombia, Mexico, Puerto Rico, Castillo’s native Dominican Republic.
He left at 19, moved to New York City to work in his uncle’s grocery. He got married there, had a daughter, then a son, was held up in the bodega five times.
A week after 9/11, he moved his family to Florida.
Castillo kept the original owner’s name when he bought the market: Orlando. It has five aisles lined with hand-written price tags and a single cash register. He installed new freezers, a meat counter and a kitchen.
His wife, Damaris, cooks empanadas, plantains, congri, cassava and, on Wednesdays, pork stew. Customers say the store smells like home.
He knows most people’s names, has watched their children grow up. “I want to give them what they need. I don’t want to disappoint,” he says.
“That item they want, it’s part of their culture. They were raised eating that. It brings them comfort and connection.” If he’s out of sofrito, someone’s abuela won’t be able to serve her arroz con pollo on Sunday.
Unless she goes to some big supermarket.
“That’s what worries me,” he says.
• • •
Castillo works at the bodega every day.
During the pandemic, his doors never closed. None of his eight employees got sick. His shelves stayed full.
Then, early last spring, deliveries began to dwindle. Longtime suppliers couldn’t get certain items, or couldn’t get enough. Castillo called other vendors, but they were short of stock too.
“Small businesses are suffering the most,” he says. “We don’t have warehouses to store stuff, or the ability to buy bulk. Suppliers give priority to big guys like Publix and Walmart.”
When he couldn’t get styrofoam takeout containers delivered, he and his wife drove to a warehouse in Tampa and filled their garage.
Recently, Castillo talked to four other bodega owners around Tampa Bay who also were struggling. “We want to try to make a small business association so we can band together and buy larger quantities, so we can compete,” he says. “We need to make a plan.”
• • •
The 18-wheeler pulls up just after 8 a.m., and the Goya driver starts unloading.
Castillo watches, flipping through the invoice, checking products and prices.
Badia cinnamon sticks used to sell for $4.99 a can. This batch costs $9.99. A can of Conchita coconut milk was $1.59 last week. This week, it’s $2.39.
“Some items I’m selling for cost because I can’t just keep raising my prices,” Castillo says. “I’m concerned for my customers.”
They keep asking for things — mango and guava juice, yellow peppers from Peru, Lizano sauce from Costa Rica — and he tells them he has no idea what’s going on. “They’re suffering. Even adding 20 cents makes my heart hurt.”
If someone is short, he lets them slide until they can pay.
For almost an hour, the driver stacks boxes by the door. Coconut flan, masa de yuca, dulce de leche wafers, papaya chunks, chorizo.
And there, towering over the rest, an entire pallet of long grain white rice – 110 sacks of 20-lb bags. “We got lucky,” Castillo says. “But we didn’t get everything.”
He’d ordered 50 cases of cookies, but got 27. He wanted angel hair pasta but settled for spaghetti.
No cooking oil. Again. No coconut water. “My 3-year-old grandson will be so disappointed.” No green split peas.
He sighs and shakes his head.
In Aisle 2, Aracelys Guerra parks her cart where the peas are supposed to be. She’s Cuban and has been shopping at the bodega for years. “For the Spanish community, it’s family,” she says. “The owners are always trying to accommodate us. Always helping people.”
After her uncle died a few years ago, she ordered food from the bodega for the funeral. When she picked it up, Castillo wouldn’t let her pay.
She scans the shelf again, sees the same hole.
Sure, she could go to Publix and find green split peas.
Instead, she picks up two bags of yellow ones.
About this series
Encounters is dedicated to small but meaningful stories. Sometimes, they play out far from the tumult of the daily news; sometimes, they may be part of it. To suggest an idea, contact editor Claire McNeill at email@example.com.