How Bloomberg's Soda Ban Favors 7-Eleven Over Local Bodegas

Cristina Costantini

Earlier this month, Mayor Michael Bloomberg helped to pass a measure that will limit the size of sugary drinks available for purchase in delis, restaurants and movie theaters to 16 ounces, in an effort to tackle the obesity epidemic.

One side effect, however, could be the demise of some neighborhood delis and bodegas, and the concurrent rise of chain stores like 7-Eleven. Critics say the ban, which is set to come into effect this spring, cracks down unfairly on small business owners while allowing some large convenience stores to skirt the rules.

7-Eleven, one of the fastest growing chains in New York City, recently announced plans to open 30 new locations within the next five years. The Dallas-based convenience stores will be able to sell all drinks prohibited under the ban, including their super-sized Big Gulp, because they are governed by the state health department, and not the city department, company representatives told ABC/Univision.

Scott Drake, a 7-Eleven spokesperson, told ABC/Univision that his company will be prepared for any extra traffic that may come to their stores due to the sugary drinks ban that will affect delis, food carts and restaurants.

"Any retailer in close proximity to our stores, which sells the same items as we do is considered competition," 7-Eleven representative Margaret Chabris wrote in an email "So, it could be a grocery store, deli, coffee shop or quick-serve restaurant."

While grocery stores are not restricted under the ban, delis are. The Department of Health did not respond to a request for the specifics of their classification system or for information about which bodegas will be counted as grocery stores and which will are counted as delis.

Either way, many bodega owners are worried. Nidia Renato, the co-owner of K&O Deli Grocery in East Harlem, says the sugary drinks ban could be detrimental to businesses like hers.

"It could affect us as small businesses," she said in Spanish. "It will affect big businesses, but for little ones it could affect us quite a bit."

Francisco Garcia, the owner of Mexico Lindo Grocery in Harlem, doesn't think his bodega will fall under the ban as a grocery store, but he is worried for other stores in in the area.

"I think the restaurants and the delis are the people that are going to be affected," Garcia said, "But for me, I won't have a problem."

And the owners of Sandy's Restaurant, an establishment that sells pizza, chicken and empanadas to-go in Harlem, says the ban could hurt their combo menu – an integral part of their business model which features a family-sized soda.

Since the sugary drinks ban passed, reports have surfaced that 7-Eleven officials are reaching out to owners of bodegas, inviting them to join a "conversion program" in which they could convert their small deli grocery stores into 7-Eleven locations. While it's unclear if this outreach effort is related to the sugary drinks ban – Bloomberg's law won't make competing against the convenience store giant any easier, some bodega owners say.

"In the street, people are talking about 7-Eleven," Ramon Murphy, president of the Bodega Association of the U.S., told Wall Street Journal on Tuesday. "Some people agree, some people not agree. The main thing is, let's educate our members, let's be prepared for competition. If you want to be 7-Eleven, great. You don't want it, I'll help you, too," he said.

"We want to keep the bodega in New York."

Bloomberg, traditionally a proponent of both immigrants and entrepreneurs, says that his ban is a large step in curbing New York City's obesity problem, which is especially grave in the Hispanic community.

"The Board of Health's passing this proposal means that New Yorkers will soon consume fewer junk calories and eventually begin turning the tide of the obesity epidemic that is destroying the health of far too many of our citizens," Bloomberg said in a press statement.

"The obesity epidemic strikes hardest in communities already suffering from health and economic disparities, particularly black, Latino and low-income neighborhoods; black New Yorkers are almost three times more likely, and Hispanics twice as likely, as whites to die from diabetes," Bloomberg's office said in a press release celebrating the law's passage.

But the Hispanic entrepreneurs we spoke with in Harlem said they didn't want the help Bloomberg's ban is offering.

"It shouldn't be like that," Garcia said. "Everybody has the right to know what to eat, what to drink. We should know what's good for our own health."

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