Jhe caterer at 603 Clinton Street in New York is quite modest. Nestled between a Baptist church and a few auto repair shops, it operates seven days a week on the edge of Red Hook, a Brooklyn neighborhood surrounded by Civil War-era shipyards and warehouses.
For most customers, new and old, there are two ways to identify the grocery store. One is near the large white banner that hangs above the windows covered in cigarette advertisements and flyers featuring neighborhood events. “Red Hook Food Corp”, the banner reads in bold red and black typeface.
The other way is through the constant cheerful cacophony that comes from inside the deli – a mixture of clicking spatulas and the “of course, of course!” and “Never Never!”, with the voice of Rahim Mohamed, the 33-year-old Yemeni American grocery store 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 path” and take a picture with Mohamed himself.
As Mohamed whips up fun creations such as eggs with bacon and stuffed cheeses between red velvet pancakes, he donates part of his earnings to his family in Yemen which has been caught in a civil war for eight years.
To the neighborhood, Mohamed is a beloved member of the Red Hook community. For his Internet users around the world, Mohamed is the New York butcher with flamboyant recipes. Amassing millions of social media followers for his designs, Mohamed came to reaffirm how New York’s immigrant-run bodegas serve more than their local communities.
Brooklyn wasn’t always Mohamed’s home. For the first 10 years of his life, Mohamed lived in Taiz, Yemen’s third largest city, located at the southern tip of the Red Sea. At one time, Taiz was the cultural capital of Yemen, known for its production of mocha coffee, white mosques and Jabal Saber – one of the highest mountains in the country, rising 10,000 feet (3,000 meters) above above sea level.
In 1999, Mohamed and his brother, sister and mother moved to the United States to join his stepfather, initially settling in Nostrand and Atlantic Avenue in North Brooklyn. Together with his brother, he soon began spending his weekends working at a grocery store his uncle had owned since the eighties.
From Red Hook, Mohamed could easily see the World Trade Center. The towers dominated the five towns until one day they were no longer.
A week before the attacks, Mohamed’s family was supposed to visit the towers, one of which had an observation deck which attracted 1.8 million visitors a year. “It was going to be my second visit but it never happened. We were at school when [the attacks] happened, it was the worst. And then I dreamed about it. I dreamed that I fell from the twin towers. I was in a bunk bed and I fell on the floor,” Mohamed said, shaking his head.
After the attacks, police 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 kinds of crazy things, but God is good, luckily nothing happened [to our deli],” he said.
In 2007, Mohamed and his brother took over the deli from his uncle, who moved to 603 Clinton Street. Inside, a set menu hangs above an assortment of Boar’s Head charcuterie and cheeses. A buttery bagel sells for $1.50. For $12, customers can get a hot meal of lamb and chicken over rice. In the 50 square foot kitchen are shelves stacked to the brim with household supplies, adult diapers and a range of beverages.
It wasn’t 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 only start picking up after 11 a.m. because then people come from church and park football,” Mohamed recalls. “It was me and my little brother. He was on the phone, I think that’s when TikTok kind of started… I look at him and I’m like, ‘Yo, put the phone down. S ‘there are no customers, do something, clean up,’ Mohamed told him.
His brother replied asking for Mohamed’s phone. “He took my phone and downloaded TikTok. He was like, ‘OK, go ahead, start recording. Record what you’re doing in the deli,’” Mohamed recalled, recalling 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 charcuterie platter of sautéed vegetables, turkey bacon and eggs.
Her brother edited the video and posted it on TikTok under the handle @rah_money1. Its attraction was modest, with around 500 views in the first few days. He then shot a second video, this time featuring the charcuterie crate that Mohamed neatly rearranged. 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 go-to recipe.
“I think people are tired of ordinary bread. Let’s do something new. So I asked my friend 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 July 1, 2020, Mohamed uploaded the video to TikTok. The likes started pouring in instantly. One user commented, “WHAT? It seems valid. Someone else said, “Wait, he really could have done something here.”
“I think day one there was 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 them with pancake mix to taste like cakes,” Mohamed said.
As Mohamed experimented with his recipes, he began asking customers if they would appear in his videos, also offering to offer their own creations. Over time, every interaction started with Mohamed saying excitedly, “Yes sir/ma’am, how can I help you today?” and the customer responding, “Yo Ock! Can I get a…” as they list their order.
In two years, Mohamed and his “Ocky” ways have racked up 3.4 million views on TikTok and nearly 55 million likes. Some of his craziest creations include steak and cheese on chocolate chip pancakes and a classic New York chopped cheese sandwich with French toast and waffles.
Customers asked him to “Ockify” McDonald’s takeout, fresh lobster and, in one case, make a bacon, egg and cheese sandwich stuffed with gummy worms. To each request, Mohamed replies: “Of course, of course.”
For the past two years, fans have flocked to Red Hook Food Corp and flooded Mohamed’s social media inboxes daily. Customers enter the deli, browsing the shelves in the hope of finding the most bizarre combinations of ingredients for Mohamed to cook. Slamming his spatulas behind the counter, he occasionally turns his head and asks his fans where they’re from.
“I see people from Spain, London, Germany, Brazil, Saudi Arabia, Dubai,” Mohamed said, recalling a time when a few Gulf princes visited his grocery store. “They came with bodyguards and cars that were black, black, black, nothing you could see,” he said.
Vloggers, musicians and athletes often visit Red Hook Food Corp. Mohamed’s Instagram inbox is filled with messages of appearance requests and thanks from blue accounts, including the Oklahoma City Thunder NBA basketball team, 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 everyday. When I see that, a tear comes to my eye, but it’s all from [God]Mohamed said looking up. “He knows I never have anything in my heart against another person.”
As of 2018, Yemeni Americans like Mohamed ran more than 1,000 New York bodegas. More than 11,000 kilometers from Yemen, many continue to mourn the devastating war that has killed an estimated 377,000 people since 2015.
“Every Yemeni American here [in the store] is somehow responsible for about 20-30 people behind them. People are really suffering in Yemen because of the constant war we have been involved in. The strength of the Yemeni community is the people. People work hard and they send money home,” said Zaid Nagi, vice president of the Yemeni American Merchants Association, a Brooklyn-based nonprofit.
As Mohamed mourns the war, he continues to help in any way he can. He regularly sends part of his earnings to his family and community in Yemen, where civilians face unprecedented levels of hunger.
“We help, you know, what we can. And as Muslims, we should never talk about it. That’s the only thing God teaches. Whatever you give, you should keep it between you and him.
Back at the storefront, other customers began to arrive. A tourist, an internal auditor from Genoa, Italy, told Mohamed he saw him on TikTok. “Can I take a picture with you? I’m a big fan!” the man asked timidly.
“Sure!” Mohamed said as he wrapped his hand around the man’s shoulder, adding, “So sir, how can I help you today?”