Food Biz

This Company Wants to Eliminate the Mom-and-Pop Shop

September 13, 2017

This morning, Fast Company published a real doozy of a story on Bodega, a Silicon Valley–founded company that’s the brainchild of Google alumni Paul McDonald and Ashwath Rajan. 

The company’s flagship product, Bodega, essentially functions as a glorified vending machine. It’s a five-foot-wide pantry box stacked with non-perishables that can be stored within office spaces and gyms. (Because Bodega’s products are limited to non-perishables, there’s still a number of items you can’t obtain there—say, a bomb bacon egg and cheese that you'd find at an actual bodega.) Accompanying it is an app that’ll allow you to unlock the box and retrieve what you wish from within it. A camera then registers what you bought and automatically charges your credit card for the purchase. This transaction occurs without any human oversight.

The boxes are restocked by "people" tasked by Bodega to do so, though it's unclear whether those are full-time employees or independent contractors. Each Bodega relies on machine learning to stock its shelves, which is dependent on context; for example, a Bodega inside a sorority house will look different from one inside an Equinox. 

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Following a period of market testing in the Bay Area, the company has just opened 50 new locations on the West Coast. The Fast Company story went live at 9 a.m. Eastern; as of writing, “Bodega” is the third most popular trending topic on Twitter within New York, having amassed over 10,000 tweets. 

The tenor of the reaction is one of abject displeasure. Mine these tweets and you’ll detect a nagging sense that McDonald and Rajan have sought to fix something that isn’t broken, and that they're actively seeking to upend a culture that’s deeply woven into the fabric of American urban life. Bodega's logo is a nod to the bodega cats who cavort around the aisles of mom-and-pop shops. Most critics have taken umbrage with the company's nomenclature, which seems to be self-aware of what exactly McDonald and Rajan want to disrupt: A network of stores that have sustained immigrant lives across the country, particularly in urban areas, for decades.

Fury spreads easily on Twitter, but this isn’t anger manufactured out of thin air. It’s a sentiment echoed by Frank Garcia, the chairman of The New York State Coalition of Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, who represents a number of bodega owners in his line of work. “To me, it is offensive for people who are not Hispanic to use the name ‘bodega,’ to make a quick buck,'” Garcia told reporter Elizabeth Segran. “It’s disrespecting all the mom-and-pop bodega owners that started these businesses in the ’60s and ’70s.” 

Garcia goes on to explain that it’s hard enough as it is for bodega owners to keep their businesses afloat within New York City due to ballooning rents and the competition posed by delivery services that promise to-your-door immediacy. The introduction of a technology like Bodega into this landscape won’t exactly provide security for small business owners during a time of such uncertainty. What's more is that there's a crucial human component missing from this depersonalized experience. “Real bodegas are all about human relationships within a community, having someone you know greet you and make the sandwich you like,” Garcia insisted. 

“I’m not particularly concerned about it,” McDonald told Segran when asked about whether the company's name could cause offense or strike people as tone-deaf. “We did surveys in the Latin American community to understand if they felt the name was a misappropriation of that term or had negative connotations, and 97% said 'no.' It’s a simple name and I think it works.” 

I’d be interested to know the specifics of how many people McDonald spoke to. Neither McDonald nor Rajan has responded to the blowback as of writing, but the pair certainly has big plans: They’re priming themselves to go national by the end of 2018, when McDonald is aiming to have over a thousand locations (that is, machines) across the country. He’s envisioning an America in which there’s no longer a need for centralized shopping nodes, for a Bodega will always be 100 feet away from you. We’ll see whether they hear this criticism and listen to it.

UPDATE (9/14): Following this story's publication, the founders of Bodega released a statement on Medium responding to the criticism. You can read the statement in full here.

What’s your take on this controversy? Let us know in the comments. 

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Mayukh Sen is a James Beard Award-winning food and culture writer in New York. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, the New Yorker, Bon Appetit, and elsewhere. He won a 2018 James Beard Award in Journalism for his profile of Princess Pamela published on Food52.


emgoh September 13, 2017
So the eventual goal is, what, ensuring we don't have to have any human contact in our day-to-day lives? :(
joovay September 13, 2017
Talk about appropriation...taking a name that has real meaning to some communities, then white washing it to make money in another community. Simply pathetic. What next, a traveling pop-up party called a quinceañera?