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Bodega’s new location thriving in spite of Covid-19

Jaymi Butler

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Bodega
Bodega's new, larger location opened down the street from its old one in mid August. It will be open for dine-in service in the next few weeks. Photo credit: Allison Harris co/bodega/baba

George Sayegh didn’t make an announcement when his popular Latin restaurant, Bodega, reopened at its new location Aug. 13.

His customers, who’d been going through withdrawal after a two-week hiatus from their beloved Cuban sandwiches and freshly squeezed juices, figured it out anyway.

“We had a line of people when we opened at 11 a.m.,” Sayegh said. “It’s really great that the community spreads the word.”

Bodega’s new digs at 1180 Central Avenue are just two doors down from the restaurant’s previous smaller location, which opened in 2012. Sayegh, who owns Bodega with his wife, Debbie, had been looking to expand for a while but had been waiting to find the right opportunity that would allow them to stay in the neighborhood.

“The facility we were in was never meant to do what we were managing to do,” Sayegh said. “To stay there another 10 years would have taken a huge investment in renovations.”

The new Bodega, which occupies the building formerly occupied by the Mis en Chic antiques store, boasts about 4,000 square feet of indoor space, a dramatic shift from the previous location where patrons ordered at a pick-up window and ate at outdoor tables. Due to Covid-19, Bodega is still only doing pick-up service, though Sayegh said he plans to open the restaurant for indoor seating – at 50 percent capacity – in the next week or two as he puts the finishing touches on the dining room. 

As the pandemic nears the six-month mark, Sayegh, who also owns another Bodega in Tampa as well as Baba, a Mediterranean restaurant in the Grand Central District that opened in 2019, said the shutdowns were “terrible” for him.

“March was an unbelievable month,” he recalled. “All three of our restaurants were doing well, and then we had to slam on the brakes.”

Sayegh made the decision to close all three of his restaurants before the shutdown was officially ordered, and he kept them shuttered for about six weeks. During that time, he also made a mutual agreement with his contractor and his landlord to pause the renovations on the new Bodega, which he’d initially hoped to open at the end of May. 

“We all agreed it was the best thing to do,” he said. 

Sayegh received a PPP loan just a few days before reopening his restaurants in May, which allowed him to bring staff members back. Had the money not gone through, he would have still reopened but on a more limited basis. 

Now that the community has gotten more into the swing of things in terms of dining out during a pandemic, Sayegh said he’s had very few issues with diners refusing to wear masks, and added that he’s had no problems staffing his restaurants. However, he imagines restaurants that are less established will be facing an uphill climb.

“If this was a project for a new concept and this happened in the middle of building it, I would probably be losing my mind,” he said. “I’m thankful we have so much community support and so many good friends and customers.”

To that end, Sayegh is paying it forward for other local businesses who are struggling. He’s currently only serving beer from Green Bench Brewing Co. and Avid Brew Company, both of which have been unable to reopen due to state mandates. 

As for what comes next, Sayegh will be keeping an eye on the numbers and while he knows that spikes in the virus could cause diners to stay away, he does feel more prepared to handle whatever happens and is cautiously optimistic about the future.

“I can’t live thinking this will go on forever,” he said, and joked, “I’m running out of masks.”

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