Life During COVID-19 Is Largely Unpredictable, But Bronx Bodega Owner's Viral Challenge Is a Reliable Comfort

A bodega in the Bronx is continuing to give away free stuff, helping its residents during the novel coronavirus pandemic.

While it would be understandable for young people to be determined to ring in the milestone 21st birthday with a boozy celebration, Ahmed Alwan had other things on his mind. The Bronx man had to think of math questions. 

He's not a teacher, but instead a fixture of Lucky Candy, his family-run bodega in the Bronx recently made famous for engaging customers in a friendly game of arithmetic. Alwan asks willing participants a math question they must solve using only their wit. If they get it right, Alwan gives them five seconds to grab whatever they want in the store, free of charge.

What is now being called the #BodegaChallenge on TikTok and the internet-at-large came about after Alwan's brother asked him a simple question.

“He did a challenge with me a good two months ago, I think two and a half months ago where he asked me to take whatever I want in ten seconds. That's all he did. That was the challenge. Right after that video I really thought about it, I was like I could really do this, you know. I thought of a way where I could help people and entertain them at the same time," Alwan told March 4.

Eighteen days later, New York City's lockdown went into effect in response to the novel coronavirus pandemic. Residents were required to stay home and asked to only go out for essential business, like grocery shopping. While supermarkets and big box stores are an option, bodegas like Alwan's family's store offer a reliability and increasingly-rare chance of interpersonal connection in a time when all socializing is expected to be done digitally.  

They're a fixture of their neighborhoods and that's no less true for his community, which relies on Alwan and his family, never moreso than now.   

“I've been here for awhile now. I've known the customers since I was a child," he told in March. 

The son of immigrants from Yemen, Alwan’s parents initially moved to Buffalo, New York, before settling in the Bronx. There, his parents scraped together what they could in order to open two bodegas that were located across the street from each other.

"There are low income families around here,"Alwan said. "It's a great feeling to help. As a kid growing up, my dad always used to help people, he taught me a lot from that. It's also good deeds, in my religion Islam so basically I'm doing something good now and for ever, for the after life."

He draws that inspiration from watching his father.

“I'm passing on what my dad used to do and he still does to this day," he said. "His family back home, we send money monthly, money to them. They're low income families back home, there's not that much money out there in Yemen. There's a lot of people starving over there. It makes me happy to do this stuff because you know, I'm helping people. It's a great feeling. I'm representing Islam, you know and it's like, it's a great feeling.”

His dad is proud of all he does, including coming up with and seeing through the Bodega Challenge. 

“My dad's very happy about what I'm doing. He says you're representing Islam in a good way and I'm helping people, because all his friends are talking good about it and stuff. He's not worried about the money part, he'd help me but [I’d] rather it coming out of my paycheck,”Alwan said.

The family now only owns Lucky Candy. Ahmed has been working there since he was a kid. His history with his customers in part informs who he picks to participate in the challenge. 

“I know my customers, like I said, I've known them for a very long time, I know their background and stuff," he said. "I would choose a customer that I know that is struggling.”

Berto, 18, is one of the regulars who stopped in after school, looking for some candy to satisfy a nagging sweet tooth.

“They're doing something good," Berto told "Because here, we see a lot of people that don't even have anything. So it's, there's an opportunity to get what they need."

On that March day, Lucky Candy was filled with a constant stream of regulars trickling in and out of the store. Most of them hungry students, fresh out of school and craving bodega staples like chips and candy.

A tiny 6-year-old correctly answered a simple question: “What’s 10 times 10?” Once Alwan gave her the green light, she buzzed around each of the store’s aisles before returning to the front counter with four cans of vanilla frosting. Her mother laughed, then asked if she could trade the haul for something her daughter would actually eat. She ran around again, this time collecting three cans of Pringles. 

A 14-year-old boy came in, tugging his kid sister along. They originally tried to pay for their snacks, until Alwan suggested they do the challenge. After giving the right answer, they headed for the most popular— and height accessible— item the store has to offer—chips. The siblings swept nearly an entire row off and plunked it onto the counter. Alwan smiled and asked them to pose for a picture. 

A woman came in, looking for some bananas. After agreeing to participate in the #BodegaChallenge, she lasered in on one item—an entire box of sanitary pads. “I’m good for a few months!” she exclaimed. Everyone in the store erupted in laughter.

Although all of this was "free," it still comes at a cost. 

“Yeah, it comes from my paycheck,” Alwan said. “I started a GoFundMe page where I raised a good amount of money now, where now I can support the community and support schools and homeless centers and stuff.”

Alwan's focus on lifting up the community remains steadfast, even during the COVID-19 pandemic. As New York Governor Andrew Cuomo deemed bodegas an essential business, Lucky Candy remains open. For those who aren’t able to show up to the store, Alwan is bringing the store to them.

Clad in masks and gloves, he and his brother spend their days loading up a red minivan with cases of water, books, board games and food before scanning their Bronx neighborhood for challenge contestants. 

“I hope this type of stuff keeps people at home, keeps them occupied, you know, worry about less stuff and let’s get it done!” Alwan says in a video on his YouTube channel. In another video posted to his channel, Alwan is pictured on a trip to Target. He glides across the store on a large cart, loading it up with cases of water, juice and games. At checkout, he beams at the cashier, spending nearly $1,000 on the items. They all would go to local families.

“Whatever you have, you see somebody, just help," he said. "It doesn't matter how much."