Jorge Fernandez, one of the co-owners of E&S Wholesome Foods at Stanton and Essex Sts.
By Ann Binlot
When Orlando Rodriguez, 34, was growing up on Suffolk St. on the Lower East Side, the neighborhood was a stark contrast to today’s scene of luxury high-rise apartment buildings and upscale hotels that are fast filling the landscape. Drugs and crime proliferated on the streets.
“All my school friends ended up in jail or dead,” said Rodriguez, whose older brother was murdered in 1987.
His father, though, made sure that his children stayed out of trouble.
“My father was very strict with curfew,” said Rodriguez.
Instead of becoming involved with drugs and gangs like many of the other kids in the neighborhood, Rodriguez, who is of Dominican descent, started working at Economy Candy on Rivington St. when he was 14. He worked there for three years.
At 17, Rodriguez began working with his brother Ralph, who is six years older, in Ralph’s bodega on Cherry St. For seven years he learned the ropes of running a small grocery store. Someone alerted Rodriguez that owners of a deli on Madison St. wanted to get out of the business and he jumped at the opportunity.
“I had the experience and I just started from there,” he said.
From that point, his business ballooned. He opened a deli on Suffolk and Rivington Sts., and then another at Stanton and Ridge Sts. Last month, Rodriguez, along with his partner and cousin, Jorge Fernandez, 29, a personal trainer, opened E&S Wholesome Foods on Stanton and Essex Sts. Unlike his other businesses, E&S Wholesome Foods will carry a large selection of organic and gourmet items, catering to the new residents of the Lower East Side.
Previously, a hair salon had called 159 Essex St. home.
“The rent was coming up a little high and business wasn’t the same and a lot of their clients moved away, and I had an ATM in front and that’s how we communicated with them that they wanted to leave and that’s how I got into this location,” explained Rodriguez.
While Rodriguez is saddened about the effect of increasing prices and rents driving out many of the people and businesses he grew up with, he feels that the changes on the Lower East Side are a positive thing.
“It’s more organized, and it’s better. The community is way better,” Rodriguez stated. “There’s no more crimes happening, a lot more cops out on the streets than way before — that’s what’s good of it.”
At the end of July 2007, Rodriguez began the large task of gutting and rebuilding the location.
“We had to redo the whole floor, walls, ceilings, plumbing, electrical and storefront,” he noted.
He knew that the neighborhood wanted a store that carried more health-conscious and organic items, so he educated himself on the products by doing research over the Internet and visiting other stores that carry similar products. He found inspiration by taking note of the way the other gourmet stores carried and stocked their items. His partner Fernandez also had valuable expertise to share from his health and personal-training background.
“It’s like double the price of regular stuff, but also good, so it has a good presentation,” remarked Rodriguez of his shop’s healthy offerings.
In addition to brewing and carrying Jim’s Organic Coffee, E&S Wholesome Foods has products from Tom’s of Maine and a large selection of nondairy milk alternatives, including soy milk, rice milk and hemp milk. Its floor-to-ceiling windows that face Essex St. invite people in to surf the ’Net or nosh on one of the place’s gourmet sandwiches while watching people pass by outside.
E&S Wholesome will still also feature some more unwholesome products, including the more traditional deli basics, such as cigarettes, as well as beer and chips.
With so many wealthy entrepreneurs and large corporations starting businesses in the neighborhood, the fact that E&S Wholesome Foods was started by two men who were born and raised on the Lower East Side stands out.
“That was always my dream, having a location like this,” declared Rodriguez with a big smile on his face.