The Corner Bodega — A New York Staple — Is Under Attack

A tech-startup, founded by two ex-Google employees, wants to replace your local bodegas with their autonomous vending machines, also called Bodegas.

Paul McDonald, and his cofounder, Ashwath Rajan, have already received funding and have installed their five-foot-wide pantry boxes, filled with non-perishable items you might pick up at a convenience store, in several locations on the West Coast.  An app allows customer to to unlock the box and cameras powered with “computer vision”register what’s been removed, automatically charging the customer’s credit card. The entire process happens without a person actually manning the “store.”

According to an interview the founders gave to Fast Company, the idea is to “preempt what people might need, then use machine learning to constantly reassess the 100 most-needed items in that community. In a sorority house, for instance, young women might regularly purchase pretzels, makeup remover, and tampons. Meanwhile, in an apartment block, residents might regularly buy toilet paper, pasta, and sugar. When an item is bought, Bodega gets a note to replace it, and regularly sends people out to restock the boxes.”

Currently being tested in gyms, dorms, lobbies and office spaces on the West Coast, the founders may have to brace themselves for what looks to be a tough sell on the East Coast.  For starters, the name, Bodega, and the logo, a cat, are rubbing local bodega owners the wrong way.

The Association for Neighborhood and Housing Development (ANHD), a New York based affordable housing advocacy group spoke out about “the awful irony of naming the company ‘Bodega’ after the very brick and mortar institutions they aim to displace, to say nothing about the cat their logo is based on that will similarly be displaced, is offensive, utterly misguided, and frankly disrespectful to New Yorkers.”  They also take issue that when asked about the potential insensitivity of the name and logo, McDonald responded, “I’m not particularly concerned about it.  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.”

McDonald may be bringing a knife to a gunfight.  “Real bodegas are all about human relationships within a community,” said New York State Coalition of Hispanic Chamber of Commerce Chairman Frank Garcia.  “Despite their extensive demographic and market research, the creators missed a crucial fact about New York City: you can mess with a lot here, but you can’t mess with our bodegas.”

Not to be undone, the ANHD took their passion a bit further by stating, “[The] Bodega [pantry box] allows the new city dweller… to live in the City without actually participating in its civic and cultural life aside from contributing to its disappearance. Never mind the lives of the immigrant and refugee service workers behind the counter who work 80 hour weeks, who brew the City’s morning cup of coffee and wrap up our life-sustaining egg and cheese on a roll. Or the lives of the young parents who rely on the bodega because the owners give them food on credit when they can’t afford it, or the senior citizens who use the space as a community center and act as a de facto neighborhood watch… New Yorkers know the difference between a vending machine and the real thing… Trying to replace the bodega with a glorified vending machine is like trying to replace the Empire State building with a low-rise strip mall.”

Want to live on a block with a real bodega on your corner?  Contact us today.

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