“Bodega,” A Startup Selling Unmanned Vending Machines, May Spell Bad News For Corner Stores

And today in things I can only describe as The Hottest Of Messes, we have this: A startup called “Bodega” launched by two former Google employees is shilling unmanned vending machines meant to sell the kinds of items many city dwellers tend to get at their local bodegas and corner stores — and people are not having it. The concerns are valid; actual bodegas are about so much more than the stuff you buy at them. And there's a very real danger that many independently-owned bodegas could suffer at the hands of a concept that's cribbed their very name.

According to Fast Company, “Bodega” co-founders Paul McDonald and Ashwath Rajan envision their product as a pantry box about five feet in length filled with non-perishable items that might range from crackers to toothpaste. The shopping experience is run by app; “Bodega” users will be able to unlock the pantry boxes with it, while cameras will track what you’ve picked up and charge your credit card accordingly. They’re entirely automatic; the idea is to install them in dorms, apartment buildings, fitness centers, and the like. Said McDonald, “The vision here is much bigger than the box itself. Eventually, centralized shopping locations won’t be necessary, because there will be 100,000 Bodegas spread out, with one always 100 feet away from you.”

Like a lot of New Yorkers, both present and former, I have very strong feelings about this. They can mostly be summed up like so:

Giphy

This is because there are a lot of problems with “Bodega,” starting with the fact that it could very well put a lot of actual bodega owners out of business. This issue is a double-whammy when you remember that, as a piece about bodega culture originally heard on NPR’s All Things Considered earlier in 2017 underlined, rising rents are already making the landscape tough for shop owners. Not cool. It’s true that “Bodega” is currently only in about 50 locations on the West Coast, but apparently the plan is for it to become a national thing; according to Fast Co, McDonald is aiming to have over 1,000 of the boxes in service by the end of 2018.

There’s an also an issue of cultural appropriation. It’s not just the name, although that’s a huge part of it; in Spanish, “bodega” can mean “storeroom” or “wine cellar,” and when the word refers to the corner stores that populate a lot of cities, it’s usually referring to shops that are run by Latin American people and other immigrant communities. But “bodega” isn’t just a word, and bodegas aren’t just shops. From the All Things Considered piece:

That bodega culture took shape in the 1940s and '50s, when Carlos Sanabria's family would make almost daily runs down the street for milk, eggs, beans and rice.
Many different ethnic groups have taken on the business model. But Sanabria, author of The Bodega: A Cornerstone of Puerto Rican Barrios, says the New York bodega is still closely associated with that first generation of entrepreneurs from Puerto Rico. They are among the hundreds of thousands who left the Caribbean for the island of Manhattan and other parts of New York City after World War II.
"There were always others — Cubans, some Dominicans, some Mexicans. But primarily if you talk about Hispanics in New York City, you were talking about Puerto Ricans," says Sanabria, a retired professor of Caribbean history who taught at Hostos Community College of The City University of New York.

Bodegas are a part of the community, and they’re a part of a lot people’s cultural heritage. To take the name is, as Frank Garcia of the New York State Coalition of Hispanic Chamber of Commerce told Fast Co’s Elizabeth Segren, breathtakingly insensitive. “To me, it is offensive for people who are not Hispanic to use the name ‘bodega,’ to make a quick buck,” said Garcia. “It is disrespecting all the mom-and-pop bodega owners that started these businesses in the ‘60s and ‘70s.” McDonald, meanwhile, had said to Segren when she asked him head on about the issue that he wasn’t “particularly concerned” about it coming across as “culturally insensitive,” citing a survey he had conducted about how people in the Latin American community felt about the use of the term. (Garcia's comments make it clear that, despite the survey results, not everyone is OK with "Bodega.")

For the curious, this is "Bodega":

To which I say this: That is not a bodega. It is a glorified hotel mini-bar. Except that, unlike a hotel mini-bar, it will likely destroy the livelihoods of an awful lot of people, taking a good deal of neighborhood community with it.

Folks on Twitter are similarly not being shy about voicing their disapproval of the whole concept of “Bodega,” from its name and logo (taken from the mighty bodega cat, which honestly reads as a huge slap in the face to me) to the larger issues of gentrification associated with it. Here’s a small smattering of the concerns people are voicing:

1Classism

The fact that "Bodega" boxes require a smartphone to use means that anyone who doesn't have a smartphone won't be able to use them —meaning that they'll only be accessible to people who can afford to access them.

2The Death Of A Culture

Nothing will kill a neighborhood's character than replacing its human-run institutions with inanimate objects.

3Can A Box Do This?

Fair question.

4Or This?

FAIR QUESTION.

5Calling A Spade A Spade

Yep. And to add insult to injury, we have this next one:

6Bodega Cats Are Not A Meme

They're part of a culture. Because...

7Bodegas Are Not Just Stores

Yep.

8The Human Touch

There are actual people behind bodegas, you know. It's not a huge, corporate industry that needs "disrupting."

9It's Not A Problem That Needs Fixing

Usually I am not a fan of "Why are you doing that, there are so many other worse things going on in the world, you could be doing something to help them instead" arguments, but I will make an exception this time. Given the current administration's stance on immigrant communities and pretty much everyone who isn't white, it seems especially tone-deaf to use technology in a way that further endangers already vulnerable people.

10If/Then

The "then" is the conclusion: Ew, indeed.

11A Better Use Of "Disruption"

SERIOUSLY.

12A Thing I Didn't Realize Was Possible

But apparently it is. Who knew?

13A Wide-Spread Response

Same.

14And This

SAME.

15And This

SAME SAME SAME.

16But Also, Logistics

This thread is worth reading in full; it analyzes why "Bodega's" business model isn't just "morally and culturally bankrupt," but also might even be a literally bankrupt one.

17Gang's All Here

THE BODEGA CATS ARE COMING FOR YOU.