Back in the stone ages of the pandemic — February and March — savvy shoppers began to stockpile the TetraPak goodness of Vita Coco’s hydrating, electrolyte-full coconut water. For New Yorkers and denizens of other major cities, this meant walking to their neighborhood bodega, the same place where they have been buying their produce, canned goods, cleaning supplies, and homemade sandwiches for years. And coconut water would be on the list for many, diverse New Yorkers: from hipster to aging hippie, from ethnically diverse neighborhoods to office cafeterias, VitaCoco has earned a reputation for being the go-to healthy beverage.
Vita Coco is the number one coconut water brand in bodegas today, a rank they earned through 15 years of hard work to debunk their main competitor, Goya brands. Goya long held a monopoly on the coconut water market, which was much more niche than it is now. With a clientele made up of mainly immigrants, many were already familiar with coco frío (slicing the top off a young coconut and drinking its water through a straw, a popular street beverage throughout the Caribbean and Asia), so when Goya canned the water and began to sell it in the American market, Latinx, Caribbeans, and Asian people bought it at bodegas. This was long before national chains would recognize a market for this liquid, formerly discarded while processing coconuts for the sweetened baking shreds sold in bags and other mainstream applications.
Like lobster, coconut water went from something only poor, brown people considered food to becoming a gourmet staple. When Goya was the first to place their product on select supermarket shelves and in bodegas in Spanish Harlem or Queens, it was Latinx and Asian people who came in and bought them, conjuring up their family’s homeland on the street corner with the crack of a can. Coconut water is another example of how Goya’s consumers have created the very market the company solely benefitted from for a long time.
As I try to recall the first time I bought commercially-available coconut water, I don’t remember the tinny taste of Goya. I recall Vita Coco’s little blue box, the Tiffany jewel in the beverage case in the bodega. It caught my eye immediately while visiting my sister in NYC. I remember it to be roughly 2004 and that it took a year or two more to hit the market in Miami. By the time my second baby weaned himself off milk onto coconut water in 2013, I was buying cases of Vita Coco at Costco.
Sure enough, Vita Coco was born in NYC in 2004. The company’s co-founders specifically distributed their product through bodegas; the novelty of their product, branding, and packaging helped galvanize these small stores as settings for vanguard products. Using these independent stores as platforms is one early example of the company’s level of engagement with its community of buyers and sellers. A little digging turned up that Vita Coco has always respected their relationship with their producers as well.
Selecting and procuring large quantities of sweet coconuts that can replicate the taste of the fresh water is at the heart of Vita Coco’s ability to deliver a consistently good product for almost two decades. Young coconuts for water are most commonly grown in Brazil, the Philippines and Sri Lanka, and the U.S.-based company has a mentoring and supportive relationship with its community of growers. Since 2014, the Vita Coco Project has given back to farmers and their families in the form of loans, education, and investment into the community, as part of a long partnership to defeat poverty.
Closer to home, back in March, when we were out shopping for the shelf-stable packages as the schools closed, Vita Coco donated one million dollars to No Kid Hungry and Feeding America, who are helping to care for our most vulnerable neighbors. With nearly half of America’s Latinx and Black families having difficulty feeding their children, it’s a relief to see a company that built itself on the backs of these communities look out for them both with the help of these organizations and through the donation of over half a million units of their product to various relief projects.
Like Goya, Latinx populations and bodegas launched Vita Coco’s products. Unlike Goya, Vita Coco remembers their customer, their producer and also their distributor. Pronounced BO-DEY-GAH in contemporary urban, the word comes from the Spanish for “warehouse” (pronounced BO-DEH-GAH), implying a depot for food and first-necessity items, more accessible than a large building full of boxes. Their origin in the 1940s and 50s allowed Latinx entrepreneurs to determine their community’s needs for dry goods and fulfill them, slowly growing a small business for their family.
To this day, bodegas are most often owned and operated by immigrants, with a calculated 85 percent of them Latinx. Bodegas have filled the gaps left by coffee and grocery chains, which skip over lower-income, culturally divergent, geographically segregated neighborhoods. But as any New Yorker knows, the bodega on the corner makes the best cafecito and pan tostado (or kibbe, or kimchi, or kathi roll), they are General Stores for the new millennium, servicing everyone in the community. In pandemic times, they have been more essential than ever, supplying customers with products that are sold out online and at big box stores, providing the people who are still going to work — mostly frontline themselves — their coffee and breakfast sandwich.
Despite their importance to the community, the pandemic has hit bodegas hard. Their business relies on foot traffic and is limited to intimate spaces, especially in times of social distancing. Bodegas are not usually on Instacart or Postmates and wouldn’t be able to afford the fees if they were, especially not now. Business is down a staggering 50-80 percent and many have stayed open just to support their community. Realizing the distress of these heartbeats of every corner in the City, José Bello, CEO of My Bodega Online came up with a way to help. He started an app to enable the customer to place a digital order with a local bodega, either for delivery or pickup, without charging the store owner a fee.
With one good turn deserving another, Vita Coco saw the opportunity to team up with Bello and launch their Virtual Bodega, which ensures the well being of both the bodegas and the health care workers on the frontlines of the pandemic. Each time a customer shops on the virtual bodega site, Vita Coco buys a breakfast sandwich for a frontliner. So far, the program has delivered over 5,000 hot and tasty breakfasts to these essential workers.
Virtual Bodega runs through the end of July, so hurry and place your order. There is a medical professional out there whose day might be a little easier because of you. Bello’s My Bodega Online is an ongoing service. Vita Coco continues to innovate and deliver on healthy and refreshing beverages, as well as community leadership. Let your fingers do the walking and order it online, preferably from your local bodega.