Op-Ed | New York City’s small businesses need better access to technology to help with delivery orders

Restaurants will not provide plastic utensils, packet condiments, napkins and other in to-go food orders, unless the customer specifically asks for them.
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Bodegas are more than just a part of the daily routine for New Yorkers to get morning coffee and breakfast on the go or a stop on the way home to get your favorite snacks — they are a cornerstone of community and part of a mosaic of the people who make New York, New York.

For generations, these neighborhood fixtures thrived thanks to New York City’s bustling residents, workers and tourists who kept the economy humming. Unfortunately, COVID-19 changed this reality, and like many small businesses, it devastated bodegas—many of them immigrant-owned. 

But unlike many other small businesses and restaurants who qualified for PPP loans and unemployment assistance, bodegas were left to fend for themselves. While they were technically eligible, several barriers prevented them from accessing valuable assistance that was provided to thousands of businesses.

Faced with the prospect of shutting down their business — and with it the ability to provide for their family and the loss of their community — many bodega owners turned to delivery services as a way to survive. 

For many businesses, delivery platforms provided tools and resources they needed during a time of unprecedented uncertainty and duress. This reality stems, in part, from the obstacles that prevented them from securing economic assistance. From language barriers that made navigating complex bureaucracies nearly impossible to a lack of relationships to financial institutions who could assist with PPP loans, these business owners were unable to access resources that could have helped them manage dire economic circumstances. 

This lack of government economic relief, as well as the transition to a convenience economy drives much of our work today at the Yemeni American Merchants Association (YAMA). Change is a constant in New York, and our goal is to help our businesses navigate new challenges and competitive pressures by helping them advocate for policies that level the playing field and access new tools, technologies or partnerships that help increase their economic prospects.

New York’s streets look different than they did before the pandemic. Changes in how people live and work have impacted daily foot traffic in many small businesses – and therefore disrupted the lifeblood of our bodegas in particular. This shift has meant that more and more bodegas have sought to grow from just corner stores to becoming embedded in the convenience economy. 

There is no question that New Yorkers have demonstrated there is a nearly insatiable appetite for delivery and if you speak with small businesses, they don’t want to go back to a world without delivery. That’s why it’s so important to ensure that local bodegas have the tools to succeed and break through any barriers they may face as they transition to the digital marketplace. 

We have concerns whenever new businesses parachute into a community and ignore the importance of reaching out to local merchants and residents who have been here for decades. No knock on their neighbor’s door, no phone call, no email — just setting up shop without a concern for how it will impact the community. It isn’t just antithetical to New York, it is anti-New York.

However, YAMA recognized the importance of delivery and wanted a partner who could help arm our businesses with the technology and tools they need to compete in a 21st century economy. For instance, we have partnered with DoorDash for more than two years, helping our members to understand their business, and for them to understand our members’ business. 

This thoughtful approach has allowed us to educate them on the unique issues facing the bodega community, from the lack of pandemic relief, to gentrification, inventory management, payment process and more. We’re participating in the company’s Small Business Advisory Council, an opportunity to share our perspective and provide feedback on how DoorDash can best serve small businesses across the city.

This engagement has not only led to greater understanding, but offered the platform and our bodegas something rare in today’s economy – a win-win. It’s my hope that it can serve as a model for how policymakers should distinguish between operators as they rightfully look to ensure a level playing field in a post-COVID economy.