A beloved old-school bodega in Brooklyn called Jesse’s Deli recently got what you might call an artisanal makeover, complete with a carefully-curated inventory and expensive price tags. It's the kind of story you hear all the time these days in gentrifying neighborhoods. But this particular makeover came with a twist.
"Artisanal Roach Bombs: $15.99,” read one of the signs that appeared on a store window this summer. It was advertising a can of Raid. Another sign was for “House Cured Salami Tubes: $5.99 each.” That was for Slim Jims. And the “Grass Fed Himalayan Tuna Salad” being sold for $9.99 a pound?
“There’s no such thing, actually,” laughed Ghassan Itayim, also known as Jesse, who founded the deli 25 years ago. The tuna salad he sells is just your basic tuna salad.
But even though the silly upscale names for everyday products are a joke, Itayim said the inflated price tags price tags may as well be real. He calls the signs “serious and funny at the same time.”
Itayim figures $15.99 for a can of Raid is about what he would have to charge to stay in business, if his rent goes up 250 percent—from $4,000 to $10,000. That’s the increase he says his landlord is planning now that property values are exploding in the neighborhood.
Itayim’s landlord did not respond to Marketplace’s interview requests. She has said publicly that she offered Itayim under-market rent a few years ago, but negotiations broke down.
The rising rents, the struggles between tenants and landlords—they are familiar predicaments in many gentrifying neighborhoods. But the idea to turn it all in to public satire sprung from the brains of two loyal customers of Jesse's Deli, Doug Cameron and Tommy Noonan.
They dubbed the stunt an “Artisanal Landlord Price-Hike Sale.”
The ironic ad campaign and the spot-on copy came naturally to Cameron and Noonan. They both work in advertising. And as much as they love an old bodega like Jesse's Deli, Cameron said they also love some of the "artisanal" stuff their joke-signs mock.
“The pro-artisanal folks — the hipster class, let's call it — are the ones certainly that are driving up the rents” in the neighborhood, Cameron said. “But at the same time, they're the ones who in many cases, really feel strong toward keeping these small businesses.”
The airBnBodega at Jesse's Deli gets its first customers.
Gentrifiers helping the gentrified fight gentrification, by mocking themselves. It is all very meta. And it all seems to be working. Cameron and Noonan’s mock-signs have helped rally support for a proposal in New York City that would give more protections to small businesses in the face of big rent hikes. Meanwhile, the Itayim family is now working with a lawyer to find a way to stay the building.
And with the family’s blessing, Cameron and Noonan launched phase-two of their Save-the-bodega satire-campaign last weekend: Jesse's Deli has begun renting out its shelf space as lodging, on Airbnb.