Bodega Profiles: Juan Carlos Romano

Bodega Profiles: Juan Carlos Romano – Romano’s Grocery – Philadelphia

The view from behind plexiglas is different than you’d expect.  Your depth perception is thrown off slightly — especially if the plastic is the extra thick, 40 cal bullet stopper kind.  People look slightly warped when they ask you for loosies. Romano’s Grocery, however, has a thinner stock of plexi, which is better to use as shelving and display. There’s also a massive window cut out, so I imagine it’s the difference between having bifocals on or not as customers walk past.  Sound rendition is better as well with the thinner plastic.

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Slightly disheveled woman/regular customer: Can you hear my favor real fast…

Juan Carlos Romano/Owner of Romano’s Grocery: Yes

SDW/RC: Aiight, right.. I got like thismuch milk left for my son, right. I gotta a WIC check… I mean a WIC appointment on Thursday right.

JCR: So you need milk now.

SDW/RC: Yeah, um, on Thursday

JCR: Ok, sounds good. Throw it in the bag.

SDW/RC: Oh, I don’t need it now, but I just wanna to know if I can get it.  Let the other Juan know I can get it, ok?

JCR: Don’t worry about it. It’s on me. Can’t have little man hungry…

SDW/RC: Aiight, thanks papa.

Romano’s Grocery circa 2005

There’s always conversations at Romano’s.  First time I met Juan, he was listening to Dave, a pleasantly plump patron, complaining about his wife who made him eat sugar-free Jell-O for dessert.  Dave had a cheesesteak in his bag and another in his hand.  Juan commented on the absurdity of the moment and extolled Dave to lay off the red meat for his wife’s sake.  The fascinating part of eavesdropping was hearing the wisdom and ease in the voice of a 26 year old dealing with a man 10 years his senior.  I took the pause in their conversation as an opportunity to introduce myself. I talked about the opportunity to finance some improvements to the bodega so they could sell healthier items in the store. Juan and Dave chuckled at the irony of my pitch.  A project was born.

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James Johnson-Piett for Bodega Chronicles: 10 questions, promise.  Let’s start from the beginning. What did you want to be when you grew up?

JCR: I wanted to fly planes, that what I really wanted to do.

JJP: So you wanted to be a pilot…

JCR: Yeah, a pilot. (laughs)

JJP: When did you let that go.. or do you still want to be a pilot, deep down?

JCR: Ha! Not anymore, I think I’m a little bit too old for that.  I let that go when I was 18.

JJP: Ok ok, it wasn’t that long ago.

JCR: Just got make some more money so we can get that G5!

JJP: Yup, yup. Exactly! So why grocery?  Tell me a little bit about what brought you into the bodega game?

JCR: Well, I bounced around a lot when I was younger.  Between here and the Dominican Republic. I came back to the States when I was around 18.  I started working in New York, driving a taxi cab. My father had a bodega, well, he always had bodegas in New York.  Then he moved to Philly and had a bodega here.  I was working and going to college back in New York, and he told me there were good opportunities here in Philly.  So I decided to take a chance, leave everything behind and be my own boss.

JJP: So the entrepreneurial spirit moved you, ultimately?

JCR: Yup. I chose to be my own boss because after a while, you get tired of working and working and working and working for somebody else and you never grow in your career, or as a person.  It gets to be a real slow process when you work for somebody else. On the other hand, when you are your own boss, you gotta work more, you have more pressure, but I think you make can make a better living.  More opportunities for growth. More savings. End of the day, it’s on you.

JJP:  What’s the toughest part of the job?  What makes it hard to get up in the morning?

JCR: Toughest part of the job… Before, all the pressure from running around, getting this, getting that. Sometimes, when you’re not in the store, it’s not the same when you’re not there.  Right now, the worst part of the job is not being able to spend a lot of time with my family. Or anybody.  Your social life kinda sucks. You gotta do so many hours.  And when you’re not there, the store doesn’t always run the way its supposed to.

JJP: Given all that, why’d you take on the green bodega project we took on a couple years ago?  That was a LOT of work!

JCR: One of the reasons I did it, obviously, was to provide the community with a larger variety of produce.  Of vegetables and things like that.  Of course, the other reason was to grow the store, grow the business and make more money, because ultimately that’s what we’re here for.  Those are the two main reasons, to make the community healthier and generate more income for the store. We have more variety now.  No one had that stuff around here, no other bodegas.

JJP: How do you think it’s gone. It’s been almost 5 years?

JCR: 5 since we first started, almost 3 since we re-opened.

JJP: Right right. 3 years since we did it.  How do you feel thinking back on it?

JCR: Well now, it’s been much better.  You know it was slow in the beginning.  Finally, people are coming to get the fresh produce, the vegetables.  Something that’s really helping is the WIC (F/V vouchers), because now people don’t have to go to a supermarket to [redeem] their WIC.  A lot of people don’t have transportation and they can come here to store and get their produce and their vegetables. It’s been working pretty good, honestly.

JJP: So what’s next on the horizon for you and Romano’s Grocery?

JCR: I think my next step is to see if I can go bigger. I think I’ll end up selling the store and go getting something bigger where it doesn’t depend on just me. Where I can hire good staff and someone to manage it. Something like that.

JJP: The American dream! Work hard and then get someone else to take over.

(Both laugh) We get on a tangent about creaky bones. We both wake up in the morning and ache a little too much for 31 year olds. Too much standing for him, too much sitting for me. It’s the kind of conversation one imagines having over the course of a life with someone you care for. I couldn’t help but smile when I realized how much we had grown up in the past 5 years, much of it due to Juan Carlos.

JJP: Ok, next series of questions are about bodega profits. I’ll name an item, you tell me how much money you make off of it:

$.25 bag of Cheetos

JCR: 6 cents

JJP: 4 OZ Jar of Gerber Baby Food

JCR: 16 cents

JJP: Roll of TP

JCR: I’m getting a special on those. Like 30 cents on each roll.

JJP: Vanilla Dutch

JCR: 40 cents

JJP: A plantain

JCR: A plantain? No money.

JJP: Hahahaha!  That’s right.  Nooo money.

JJP: What about a tomato?

JCR: Oh good… Bought it for like $14 for 25 lbs case.  Made $11 on it. Almost 100% profit

JJP: Finally, the Philly classic. A cheesesteak.

JCR: About a dollar all in. Depends on how much is on it. (Laughs)…

JJP: One thing I always felt was really big for Romano’s particularly, but even other bodegas was the music. How it set a tone and created a unique atmosphere when you came into the store. It created a much more festive vibe than other places. You even hired a bongo player from a bachata band as a cook!

JCR: Yeah, this is his song playing right now actually!

JJP: (Laughing).. Ok! Give me a couple of songs from the store’s soundtrack that you think represent what the store’s all about:

JCR: Definitely Aventura. The band is hot. The best track is Ensename a Olvidar. It’s from a couple of years ago, but it’s a nice track.

JJP: Yeah, this has a softer vibe. I think you’re getting more romantic as you get older.

JCR: Yeah, maybe. Kids will do that.

JJP: Ha! Anything else…

JCR: Well, Arcangel is hot right now. Reggaeton artist from DR. He has a mixtape out, but the track everyone knows is Chica Virtual. And, of course Adelso’s band Kute. We give their stuff heavy play daily.

JJP: Of course, gotta keep it in the family.

About 10 minutes late, Juan Carlos’ aunt walks in with Jiancarlo, Juan’s first son. He’s about 15 months and immediately reaches for his dad from the sales counter.  He has a natural ease with his son. The same kind of patience he shows with his customers. In a way, he’s been taking care of a whole neighborhood for over 5 years. In the course of two hours, he’s de-escalated a fight, given advice about banking, picked out an outfit for a young girl’s first day of school, and chatted up an elderly woman who hung out at the counter because she was lonely.

I work with dozens of bodega owners at this point. Some are cantankerous, some are manic, others are slick and savvy.  I respect them all.

Juan Carlos is the only one that’s family.