Bodega Owners Add Plant-Based Menu Options



The Plantega menu at Eighth Ave. Gourmet Deli in Chelsea. Photo: Anna Phillips

Bodegas, or small grocery stores, are crucial to the New York City food system. There are more than 13,000 citywide, according to Bloomberg CityLab. Many New Yorkers head to their local shop daily, often because of convenience and low prices. But bodega food is generally not the healthiest and rarely vegan, leaving customers who are trying to avoid meat and dairy with few options.

“I think a bodega is as much of the lifeline of New York City as the subway system is. They’re not only convenient, they’re essential,” said Nil Zacharias, CEO and co-founder of new plant-based food company, Plantega. “In some neighborhoods, that’s the only place you can get food.”

Noah Mosleh owns Eighth Ave. Gourmet Deli in Chelsea. He said he started offering vegan options through Plantega two months ago to draw customers in. “I need customers to stay steady in my business,” he said.

Like many New York City bodegas, Mosleh said Eighth Ave. Gourmet Deli struggled during the pandemic. He said he managed to keep the business afloat with a Paycheck Protection Program loan but has been desperate for business. Though the profit margins are lower for the vegan menu because Plantega takes a portion, Mosleh said the menu is still worth it.

“So far, for people buying the Plantega menu, about 25% are existing customers. And then the rest are new customers,” said Mosleh. “When the customers come in for Plantega, they end up buying other food and drinks too, so it helps me a lot.”

Plantega has partnered with plant-based food brands, such as Beyond Meat, to bring vegan food options to 15 bodegas throughout New York City, including four in Midtown. The company, which launched in November of last year, creates a menu of made-to-order sandwiches and grocery items to sell in traditional bodegas. Zacharias said he hopes it will help combat the inequities in the food system.

“The sustainable food movement and plant-based foods are growing exponentially, yet people who needed access to it broadly were not necessarily getting it,” he said. “Most of it is available largely in big box grocery stores or natural stores or in farmer’s markets and perhaps in online retailers. But by virtue of doing that, there are certain groups of people that are just excluded from the whole process, either because geographically that doesn’t work for them or because of the price point.”

Eating red and processed meat is linked to increased risk for colon cancer, type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease, according to a Harvard University study. And according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, the livestock industry is a major contributor to climate change, accounting for 14.5% of greenhouse gas emissions. In recent years, many consumers have switched to a plant-based diet to avoid the health and climate impacts of eating animal products. But prices for vegan products are still higher than the alternatives, sometimes excluding lower income shoppers.

Vidal Alhadae owns Silver Moon Deli in Washington Heights. Like Mosleh, he said he added the Plantega menu a few months ago to appeal to customers.

“Plantega has a lot of their own customers, so it has brought new customers in,” said Alhadae. The new menu has been doing really well, especially the sausage, egg and cheese and the chopped cheese, which are bodega classics.”

But even with the addition of Plantega, many New Yorkers are still barred by price. A regular bacon, egg and cheese at Silver Moon Deli costs $3.50, while the Plantega option costs $8. According to Census data, 31.5% of Washington Heights households receive food assistance benefits, compared to the city average of 19.8%. Alhadae explained that Plantega’s higher cost might turn customers back to the bodega falafel.

Vegan egg product, Just Egg is used in Plantega sandwiches and sold separately as a grocery item. A 12 ounce Just Egg container costs $3.99, while a similar quantity of a dozen eggs cost $1.48 on average, according to database company Statista. Eat Just, the San Francisco-based producer of Just Egg, said the price was already lowered from $7.99, when it first launched in 2019. The company said it hopes to continue to lower the price over time.

“The way that we’ve been able to do that is by increasing production efficiencies. So being able to scale up and more efficiently produce the key ingredients like the mung bean protein. And if we can produce the ingredients and ultimately manufacture the finished product more efficiently, that brings down the cost,” said Andrew Noyes, head of global communications at Eat Just.

Eat Just currently sources mung bean from Africa and Asia. Noyes said the company would likely be able to lower prices if they could source mung bean from North America.

Despite the current price differences, Zacharias said he believes Plantega plays a pivotal role in increasing food accessibility for all demographics.

“Bodegas are the great equalizer in New York City,” he said. “We want everyone to have the option when they’re walking down the street in their neighborhood to grab a quick bite that happens to be better for them and better for the planet.”