Tech bros want to replace bodegas, New Yorkers aren’t having it

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Don’t fix what isn’t broken.

Two ex-Google employees, Paul McDonald and Ashwath Rajan, want to reinvent the bodega into a pantry box for convenience items you’d normally get at the corner store. But it would mean putting mom-and-pop neighborhood stores out of business.

As Fast Company reported, it’s essentially a high-tech vending machine: a five-foot-wide pantry with non-perishables you’d normally get at a bodega – snacks, toilet tissue, diapers and more.

An app lets you unlock it and cameras track what you’ve taken, triggering a charge to your credit card.

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McDonald and Rajan want the product to replace bodegas, corner stores and mom-and-pop shops by selling the pantries to existing entities and specializing the items sold. Apartment buildings could sell standard items like tissues, gyms could sell power bars, and sorority houses at college could sell makeup remover and feminine products.

“The vision here is much bigger than the box itself,” McDonald told Fast Company. “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.”

To add insult to New Yorkers’ injury, the logo for the product is a cat, alluding to the felines often seen at city bodegas.

McDonald said surveys in the Latin American community showed that 97% of Latinx didn’t find the use of “bodega” offensive, but Frank Garcia, the outgoing chairman of the New York State Coalition of Hispanic Chamber of Commerce told the Daily News, “it’s sacrilegious what these guys are doing, they don’t understand. They said they’ve done a poll in the Hispanic community, but we know for a fact they haven’t done a poll.”

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“The bodega is very sacred to the community. A machine doesn’t say the stories,” Garcia said. His own grandfather was the founder of the Latin Grocery Association and told him stories about different Hispanic groups making a living by owning bodegas.

“There was a lot of discrimination in the 40s and 50s and so this was a way for the Hispanic community to have a safe place to go. I’m outraged.”

Users on Twitter felt the same. “Then to actually NAME it “Bodega” after the exact thing they’re trying to gentrify & put out of business? Wow. Such disrespect,” said @ASamantha.

“And to steal the bodega cat as their logo? It’s so in your face ruthless.” said another user, @r_macaroni.

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So far, the device hasn’t been tested on the East Coast – about 80 locations exist on the West Coast, with plans to go national.

Garcia said if they did try to come to New York, he’d “do whatever we need to do to make sure they’re not successful. If they’d come to the community first, it would have been different.”

But as it is, he has a lot of concerns about how the service would work, if the creators could even legally use the word “bodega” based on copyright and if it would hurt other Hispanic businesses like suppliers typically found in bodegas, like Goya.

“I just have a lot of questions,” Garcia said. “Will this be a nail in the coffin for the institution we call bodegas in New York?”

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New Yorkers on Twitter gave a resounding “no,” calling the idea “gentrification” and “reinventing the vending machine,” and voicing upset with how dismissive it is of immigrant bodega owners.

“No bodega cats? no poppers in a cardboard box behind the register? no “what’s up big guy” when I order my breakfast sandwich? not MY bodega,” tweeted @jpbrammer.

“I’ve seen 1000s of vending machines, not sure how this is an improvement over them much less a full service bodega with perishables, cooktop,” said @PeteDRW.

“my bodega owners are yemeni immigrants and the bodega not only affords them a life in new york but also allows them to send money back home,” tweeted Jessica Roy.

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“The people who would use this box are people who would never set foot in a bodega,” @Trinity6215 pointed out.

“Is that stupid box gonna sell me 2 single newports? Is that stupid box going to heat up my chicken sandwich? No… its not. F–k your box,” said @PorschePedro.

Essentially, you’ll only take real bodegas from our cold, dead hands.

“Despite our best intentions,” McDonald said in a statement on the company website addressing the controversy, “and our admiration for traditional bodegas, we clearly hit a nerve this morning, we apologize.”

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“We want to bring commerce to places where commerce currently doesn’t exist. Rather than take away jobs, we hope Bodega will help create them,” he said.

McDonald said the name was an homage to the versatility of a true bodega. “Like NYC’s bodegas, we want to build a shopping experience that stands for convenience and ubiquity for people who don’t have easy access to a corner store.”

“The name Bodega sparked a wave of criticism on social media far beyond what we ever imagined,” McDonald admitted, “it’s clear that we may not have been asking the right questions of the right people.”

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