Chips from Egypt, Thailand and beyond, soda from Bulgaria, seemingly infinite choices from so many corners of the globe. That's the appeal of NYC Exotic Snax, a shop that is the brainchild of longtime friends Rafael Lullanda and Will Alsaidi.
The pair, who have been friends for more than 15 years, came up with the idea for the store in late 2019. Alsaidi ran what used to be a smoke shop in The Bronx, when Lullanda had an idea while on vacation in Hollywood. He wandered into a nearby snack shop while his friends strolled down the Walk of Fame.
While inside, Lullanda noticed some soda flavors he'd never seen before.
“He was on vacation, came back and he started telling me about these sodas, $15, $20. At first... you don't believe it, but he put up a couple of hundred dollars that he had and he ordered the first case, put them on the shelf, and then from there it just started flying out the store," Alsaidi said.
Creating a sustainable business off the hunch that such products was not without its challenges, but the pair were up for it. They developed relationships with individuals in the countries that sold products they believed would be appealing to adventurous customers looking to try new-to-them products.
“It's not like we could just go anywhere and be like, ‘Hey, I want to buy 20, 40 cases of this,’ you know, it's very hard.” Lullanda said. "So at first we was looking for people, and people that lived out there, we started with that. [We would ask] 'Hey, can you source this' ... And we ended up becoming friends and... now they work for us.
“The first country I would probably say was Japan," he continued. "He was an American in the military. Started a conversation with him and went from there."
Lullanda said they found their shoppers randomly on the internet.
“We made an Instagram page, started getting popular, and once we [saw] that we had the artists' support, rappers from the Bronx, local rappers, they all supported us. So from there we just said, ‘Alright. The idea was let's make it a full exotic snack store. Not even a smoke shop no more. This is going to be a full exotic snack store, where you get your sodas and chips. Anything that's hot item,’” Alsaidi said.
At that point, another friend Rob Hernandez Jr. got involved to help run the shop.
“I was working construction. I got laid off when COVID hit, so I started coming around more and then it just formed into this, come on, you know what I'm saying, let's roll this,” Hernandez Jr. said.
Many people may wonder how someone could sustain or even consider starting a new business in the middle of a global pandemic, but the group has a clear North Star in all they do.
“Well, to be honest, we help our family. So whatever we do is for the family. So when you work hard and it's for family, God will bless you to make it easy for you to do so.” Alsaidi said.
There are now three NYC Exotic Snax storefronts located in Queens, the Bronx and in West Nyack, New York, proving the demand for such supplies was there. With their vast selection, NYC Exotic Snax also offers locals a way to travel without actually going anywhere and provides New Yorkers who once called another country home an opportunity to visit the past through food.
“We have people that came from their country a long time ago, they haven't seen certain items, so it brings them back memories," Lullanda said. Then you also have people like me who don't really like to get on planes a lot. So it gives us a chance to taste stuff without actually getting on those long flights or costly hotels without having to spend all that."
And if ever a customer is unsure of what to buy, Hernandez can be counted on to be be right over their shoulder.
“I'll tell them straight up. Like I said, everything here is fat boy-approved," he said. "I'll tell them which ones to get, which ones not to get,”
One of the Hernandez-approved snacks happens to be Alsaidi's favorite items in the store.
“I think the taco Doritos," he said. "It's the number one selling chip in Japan right now and we can't keep them in stock. People come in and they'll- anywhere from two to seven bags at a time and just walk out, you know?”
Second to the flaming Doritos are the Flaming Hot Cheetos. The craziest snack flavor Hernandez says he has in stock? Cheeseburger-flavored Doritos from Australia.
Because of their success, Alsaidi and Lullanda say they have been getting requests to expand to other U.S. cities, including Atlanta, Detroit, and the place where the idea for it all started, Los Angeles.
And why not? The possibilities, like the flavors, are endless.