The Brooklyn deli owner winning TikTok’s heart – one ‘Ocky’ recipe at a time – The Guardian US

Rahim Mohamed, AKA General Ock, has turned his bodega into a tourist hotspot with creations like pancake-wrapped bacon sandwiches
The deli on 603 Clinton Street in New York City is fairly unassuming. Nestled between a Baptist church and a few auto repair shops, it operates seven days a week on the edge of Red Hook, a neighborhood in Brooklyn surrounded by shipping yards and civil war-era warehouses.
For most customers, new and old, there are two ways to identify the deli. One is by the large white banner that hangs above windows plastered with cigarette ads and flyers featuring neighborhood events. “Red Hook Food Corp”, the banner says in bold red and black letters.
The other way is through the cheery and constant cacophony that comes from inside the deli – a mix of clanking spatulas and the every-so-often “sure, sure!” and “never ever!”, with the voice belonging to Rahim Mohamed, the deli’s 33-year-old Yemeni American owner and one of the world’s most unlikely Tik Tok stars.
Known widely on the internet as General Ock (an anglicization of “akhi”, the Arabic word for “brother”) for his wild sandwich creations, Mohamed attracts customers from across the country and the world, each hoping to place an order “the Ocky way” and to snap a photo with Mohamed himself.
As Mohamed whips up fun creations such as bacon-egg-and-cheeses stuffed between red velvet pancakes, he donates a portion of his earnings to his family in Yemen who have been caught in a civil war for the past eight years.
To the neighborhood, Mohamed is a beloved member of the Red Hook community. To his internet fans across the world, Mohamed is the New York deli guy with flamboyant recipes. Amassing millions of social media followers for his creations, Mohamed has come to reaffirm how New York’s immigrant-run bodegas serve more than just their local communities.
Brooklyn was not always home for Mohamed. For the first 10 years of his life, Mohamed lived in Taiz, the third-largest city in Yemen, situated at the southern tip of the Red Sea. At one point, Taiz was Yemen’s cultural capital, known for its production of Mocha coffee, white mosques and Jabal Saber – one of the country’s highest mountains, peaking at 10,000ft (3,000 meters) above sea level.
In 1999, Mohamed and his brother, sister and mother moved to the US to join his stepfather, initially settling down at Nostrand and Atlantic Avenue in northern Brooklyn. With his brother, he soon began spending his weekends working at a deli that his uncle had owned since the eighties.
From Red Hook, Mohamed was easily able to see the World Trade Center. The towers stood above all five boroughs until they one day no longer did.
A week before the attacks, Mohamed’s family was supposed to visit the towers, one of which had an observation deck that drew 1.8 million visitors annually. “It was going to be my second visit but it never happened. We were in school when [the attacks] happened, that was the worst. And then I had a dream about it. I had a dream that I fell from the twin towers. I was in a bunk bed and I dropped to the floor,” Mohamed said, shaking his head.
After the attacks, police officers stood guard outside New York’s many immigrant-run bodegas, including that of Mohamed’s uncle, as hate crimes against Arabs and Muslims soared in the city. “People were just coming in, violating things and doing all sorts of crazy things, but God is good, thankfully nothing happened [to our deli],” he said.
In 2007, Mohamed and his brother took over his uncle’s deli, which moved to the 603 Clinton Street address. Inside, a set menu hangs above an assortment of Boar’s Head cold cuts and cheeses. A butter bagel sells for $1.50. For $12, customers can get a hot meal of lamb and chicken over rice. Across the 50-sq-ft kitchen lie shelves stacked to the brim with household supplies, adult diapers and an array of beverages.
It was not until the pandemic that Mohamed became known as General Ock, thanks to his younger brother.
“It was a Sunday [in July]. Sunday mornings are always dead, we don’t start picking up until after 11am because then people are coming from church and soccer from the park,” Mohamed recalled. “It was me and my little brother. He was on his phone, I think that’s when TikTok kind of started … I’m looking at him and I’m like, ‘Yo, put the phone down. If there are no customers, do something, clean up,’” Mohamed told him.
His brother responded by asking for Mohamed’s phone. “He took my phone and downloaded TikTok. He was like, ‘OK, go ahead, start recording. Record what you do in the deli,’” Mohamed recalled his brother telling him.
Mohamed was taken by surprise. But he listened to his brother nonetheless and filmed his first video – a no-frills iPhone production featuring a deli platter of sautéed vegetables, turkey bacon and eggs.
His brother edited the video and posted it on TikTok under the handle @rah_money1. Its attraction was modest, with about 500 views in the first few days. He then shot a second video, this time featuring the deli case that Mohamed rearranged nicely. It only received a few views.
“What do you want me to do? There are no views,” Mohamed told his brother. A few days later, he thought of something that would eventually become his staple recipe.
“‘I think people are sick and tired of regular bread. Let’s make something new.’ So I asked my buddy what he would think about making a video where he asks me for a bacon, egg and cheese [sandwich] on a honey bun,” Mohamed said, referring to a common convenience store pastry filled with honey and cinnamon.
On 1 July 2020, Mohamed uploaded the video to TikTok. Likes started pouring in instantly. One user commented: “WHAT? That looks valid.” Someone else said: “Hold up, he really might have done something here.”
“I think on my first day, there were like 50,000 to 100,000 likes and I was like, you know what, I think I know what people want. I thought about what I could do with different ‘breads’ and how I could mix it up with pancake mix to taste like cakes,” Mohamed said.
As Mohamed experimented with his recipes, he started asking customers if they would appear in his videos, offering them to also come up with their own creations. Over time, every interaction started to begin with Mohamed enthusiastically saying: “Yes sir/ma’am, how may I help you today?” and the customer replying: “Yo Ock! Can I get a …” as they list out their order.
In two years, Mohamed and his “Ocky” ways have racked up 3.4m views on TikTok and nearly 55m likes. Some of his wildest creations include steak and cheese on chocolate chip pancakes and a classic New York chopped cheese sandwich with French toast and waffles.
Customers have asked him to “Ockify” McDonald’s takeout, fresh lobster and, in one case, whip up a bacon, egg and cheese sandwich stuffed with gummy worms. To each request, Mohamed replies: “Sure, sure.”
In the last two years, fans have flocked to Red Hook Food Corp and flooded Mohamed’s social media inboxes on a daily basis. Customers file into the deli, browsing the shelves in hopes of finding the most bizarre ingredient combinations for Mohamed to cook up. As he clanks his spatulas behind the counter, he occasionally turns his head and asks his fans where they are from.
“I’m seeing people from Spain, London, Germany, Brazil, Saudi Arabia, Dubai,” Mohamed said, recalling a time when a few Gulf princes visited his deli. “They came with bodyguards and cars that were black, black, black, nothing that you can see,” he said.
Vloggers, musicians and athletes visit Red Hook Food Corp often. Mohamed’s Instagram inbox is filled with messages of appearance requests and thanks from blue-tick accounts including the Oklahoma City Thunder NBA basketball team, the record producer Benny Blanco and local rappers.
“They’re like, ‘Yo, we’re proud of you, we love what you do’ and I thank them every day. When I see this, a tear comes to my eye, but this is all from [God],” Mohamed said, looking upwards. “He knows I never hold anything in my heart against another person.”
As of 2018, Yemeni Americans like Mohamed ran more than 1,000 of New York’s bodegas. Over 7,000 miles away from Yemen, many continue to mourn over the devastating war that has killed an estimated 377,000 people since 2015.
“Each Yemeni American here [in the store] is in one way or another responsible for around 20 to 30 individuals behind them. People are really suffering in Yemen because of the constant war that we’ve been involved in. The strength of the Yemeni community is the people. The people are hardworking and they send money back home,” said Zaid Nagi, vice-president of the Yemeni American Merchants Association, a Brooklyn-based non-profit.
As Mohamed grieves over the war, he continues to help in any way he can. He regularly sends a portion of his earnings to his family and community in Yemen, where civilians are facing unprecedented levels of hunger.
“We help, you know, what we can. And as Muslims, we should never speak about it. That’s the one thing God teaches. Whatever you donate, you should keep it between you and Him.”
Back at the storefront, some more customers began filing in. One tourist, an internal auditor from Genoa, Italy, told Mohamed that he had seen him on TikTok. “Can I take a picture with you? I’m a big fan!” the man sheepishly asked.
“Of course!” Mohamed said as he wrapped his hand around the man’s shoulder, adding: “So sir, how may I help you today?”


Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *