There are (at least) two sides to just about every technological advancement. For every person whose life is simplified by, say, email or an automated phone system, there’s an employee who can’t just unplug because, thanks to electronic correspondence, you’re never out of reach, or, in the case of the latter, you have one less call center employee. Now a new startup aims to make buying convenience store items a little more convenient for some, while effectively eroding neighborhood cornerstones.
That’s a bit dramatic, yes, but no more so than this Fast Company headline, which introduces a new venture from former Google employees Paul McDonald and Ashwath Rajan. Their business: to put sleeker vending machines in apartment and office buildings as well as dorms. Like all things out of Silicon Valley, there’s a tech bent—here, the vending machines assess the buying patterns of the customers to restock as well as customize the offerings. So, a sorority house will always have “tampons and pretzels” in its vending machine, says McDonald. He and Rajan are using demographic data to fill the machines in the first place, because “each community tends to have relatively homogenous tastes, given that they live or work in the same place.”
There’s nothing inherently wrong with vending machines, and there are certainly lots of places that could use them, like maybe neighborhoods that are food deserts and/or office and apartment buildings in cities that aren’t very walkable. But apparently, that term is just too cold for McDonald and Rajan, who are instead calling their unrefrigerated boxes filled with non-perishable snacks and sundries Bodegas. You know, like the corner stores you’ll find in many neighborhoods, especially Latinx ones. And if you live in New York, you not only have a favorite bodega, you probably have a favorite bodega cat. Well, the Bodega startup wants to cash in on that sense of familiarity, though McDonald and Rajan won’t phrase it that way.
When asked if he’s at all concerned about appropriating the term, McDonald says no and assures Fast Company that he 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.” Of course he does—hundreds of thousands of people already recognize it as a place to buy cold beverages and scratch-and-wins from a guy who probably babysat for you at some point.
Anyway, it’s not just Latinx who own bodegas, obviously, but the term is one that they helped settle on to describe the little neighborhood convenience stores. And, together with other marginalized people who run bodegas, they’re pushing back against this latest tech “enbroachment.” Frank Garcia, chairman of the New York State Coalition of Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, represents many bodega owners, and he calls the move “offensive for people who are not Hispanic to use the name ‘bodega,’ to make a quick buck. It’s disrespecting all the mom-and-pop bodega owners that started these businesses in the ’60s and ’70s.” Garcia plans to ask his fellow Chamber members to push back against the “Bro-dega”—as one Fast Company employee put it—expansion.
Garcia points out that bodega owners are already struggling thanks to grocery-delivery services and rising rents, and this startup would just add another nail to the coffin. “Bodegas can’t compete with this technology, because it is so much more expensive to have a brick-and-mortar store than a small machine.” Ultimately, he says “to compete with bodegas and also use the ‘bodega’ name is unbelievably disrespectful.” Aside from inquiring about the name, Fast Company didn’t pose a question about running mom-and-pop stores and bodegas out of business to the Bodega founders—maybe because it’s already too late. McDonald says they already have 50 locations set up on the West Coast, with plans to go national soon.