By Natalie Rinn
Last summer, a long article in the Times called “The Williamsburg Divide” got a lot of people talking. Here was the long and short of it: Grand Street represents a border between “sleek, moneyed, ‘North Williamsburg’ and a gritty, hyper-authentic ‘South Williamsburg.’” The delivery might have grated but the message wasn’t wrong. And, if one address on the Grand Street divide embodies the more down-to-earth half of the neighborhood, it is likely Rodriguez Grocery and Deli, on the corner of Berry and Grand.
“I am biased due to the fact that I have been stopping by here for two solid years almost every single day,” wrote Yelp reviewer Sean P. of his favorite spot for a breakfast sandwich and morning coffee. But, “it is the fact that everyone knows you there and recognizes you as a regular that makes you love a place. See you tomorrow morning, dudes!”
The “dudes” who elicited so much love on Yelp are members of the Rodriguez family. Alongside a coterie of cousins and long-time family friends, three generations have run the store day in and day out since José Rodriguez Sr. opened its doors to south Williamsburg in 1988.
“We never had a problem here,” said José Rodriguez Jr., 45, who started working alongside his father on day one when he was just 19. “But it used to be a rough neighborhood. There was a lot of fighting,” he recalled.
“Como estás, primo?” José interrupted himself, leaning against a fridge filled with soda, to greet a regular. “He’s not really my cousin,” chuckled José, a man of few words and a wry smile. “In a way, it’s always been like this around here—quiet.” Not a whole lot of foot traffic.
That may be true of the streets surrounding the bodega, whose storefront proudly displays the family name in bright blue and red block lettering, but quiet can take on many forms.
In the 90s the neighborhood was more or less industrial, said José, so regulars were factory workers who commuted from other neighborhoods, and the store closed at 8 p.m. José, his dad, and, at the time, two of his sisters poured cups of morning coffee, made heaps of lunch sandwiches, and vended cold bottles of postwork beers.
Then there were the ethnic communities, slightly different than they are today, which called for slightly different inventory. “We used to sell more green plantains and Goya cans, more Polish beer and sausages,” recalled José of the go-to items for his Polish and Puerto Rican customers who once lived a little closer.
But as much as the corner deli has adapted to the shifts around it, its essence has stayed the same. José Sr. retired in 2000 but not a day goes by that he and his wife Elexia don’t show up for work. On a recent weekday before 9 a.m., they stood by the front door drinking coffee and greeting regulars. A steady stream of customers ordered egg and cheese sandwiches and coffee with milk and sugar. Spanish radio above broadcast intermittent chatter. And José number three, who turns nine this month, stood between his grandparents with a big, beaming smile.
“I help my dad with the cash register a lot,” he said. “But my favorite part is eating sandwiches.” Contrary to popular belief, the best-selling sandwich is not, in fact, egg and cheese, said young José, but “bagels with cream cheese and jelly.” Coincidentally, it’s his favorite, too.
“Oh, my other favorite part is walking to school in the morning with my Grandma,” he said, as he snuggled into Elexia and played with her scarf.
José Sr., whose 79 years hide behind his active eyes, listened happily to his namesake talk shop.
Life is very different here than in the Dominican Republic, where he raised cows before moving his family to Connecticut in 1982. Five years later the Rodriguez’s settled on South Second Street and haven’t left. José and Elexia are still active in their church, go to the gym several days a week, and, just as she has every day for 26 years, Elexia brings traditional Dominican lunch to her family at the store.
Still, change comes for everyone with enough time. José Jr.’s oldest son Joel is 23, and may be a harbinger of a new order.
“Taking over is kind of my backup plan,” Joel said one afternoon from behind the deli counter. He helps out his family as needed, but takes liberal arts classes and hopes to become a police officer. “I guess I had the idea because my parents, they always respected a lot of cops, so I always wanted to be one.”
Joel was born in 1990, a year after the store opened. He can’t remember a time when he wasn’t there. “I would spend the whole day here. A lot of people would watch me grow up. They always try to give me advice. Sometimes I take it, but sometimes it’s a little confusing, so many people trying to help you.”
Just like his Grandfather and father, Joel says he is naturally quiet, but interacting with so many customers has forced him out of his shell, which hasn’t been all bad: “Most of the girlfriends I’ve had I’ve met at the store, too,” he confessed with a smile.
Joel remembers the most recent changes in the neighborhood happening around the time his grandfather retired. People moved out with increased rents, and new groups moved in.
“If the neighborhood keeps changing, I guess we’ll have to keep changing with the neighborhood. You listen to what the customers want, and change with the time.”
While Joel talked, a regular named Michael pulled up a chair behind the deli counter. He talked in Spanish with José Jr., who had just made him a B.L.T.
“It’s funny because there are all these restaurants around here, but I come here to get my sandwiches,” said Michael, who has lived in Williamsburg for eight years. “This guy would give me credit,” he said, gesturing toward José, “he’s even loaned me money—I mean, I always pay you back, right?”
“You better,” dead-panned José.
“But, look where I’m hanging out here, I just sat down behind the kitchen.”
“I guess they feel comfortable,” said Joel of his family’s customers. “They socialize a lot. I know when I go to stores, I hardly ever socialize, but here, people do.”
Rodriguez Grocery & Deli
127 Grand Street