While it sometimes feels like we do all of our shopping on the internet, government data shows that actually less than 10%of all retail transactions happen online. In a world where we get our groceries delivered in just two hours through Instacart or Amazon Fresh, the humble corner store–or bodega, as they are known in New York and Los Angeles–still performs a valuable function. No matter how organized you are, you’re bound to run out of milk or diapers in the middle of the night and need to make a quick visit to your neighborhood retailer.
Paul McDonald, who spent 13 years as a product manager at Google, wants to make this corner store a thing of the past. Today, he is launching a new concept called Bodega with his cofounder Ashwath Rajan, another Google veteran. Bodega sets up five-foot-wide pantry boxes filled with non-perishable items you might pick up at a convenience store. An app will allow you to unlock the box and cameras powered with computer vision will register what you’ve picked up, automatically charging your credit card. The entire process happens without a person actually manning the “store.”
Bodega’s logo is a cat, a nod to the popular bodega cat memeon social media–although if the duo gets their way, real felines won’t have brick-and-mortar shops to saunter around and take naps in much longer. “The vision here is much bigger than the box itself,” McDonald says. “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.”
2004 Tokyo called and wants its vending machines back, guys. And let's talk about calling these things bodegas to begin with, you assholes.
The major downside to this concept–should it take off–is that it would put a lot of mom-and-pop stores out of business. In fact, replacing that beloved institution seems explicit in the very name of McDonald’s venture, a Spanish term synonymous with the tiny stores that dot urban landscapes and are commonly run by people originally from Latin America or Asia. Some might bristle at the idea of a Silicon Valley executive appropriating the term “bodega” for a project that could well put lots of immigrants out of work. (One of my coworkers even referred to it as “Bro-dega” to illustrate the disconnect.)
I asked McDonald point-blank about whether he’s worried that the name Bodega might come off as culturally insensitive. Not really. “I’m not particularly concerned about it,” he says. “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.”
But some members of the Hispanic community don’t feel the same way. Take Frank Garcia, the chairman of the New York State Coalition of Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, who represents thousands of bodega owners. Garcia’s grandfather was the head of the Latin Grocery Association in the 1960s and was part of the original community of immigrants who helped settle on the term “bodega” for the corner store. “To me, it is offensive for people who are not Hispanic to use the name ‘bodega,’ to make a quick buck,'”Garcia says. “It’s disrespecting all the mom-and-pop bodega owners that started these businesses in the ’60s and ’70s.”
In fact, Garcia would consider making it harder for McDonald to set up the pantry boxes within his community. “I would ask my members not to allow these machines in any of their properties in New York State,” Garcia says. “And we would ask our Hispanic community not to use the service because they are not really bodegas. Real bodegas are all about human relationships within a community, having someone you know greet you and make the sandwich you like.”
According to Garcia, many bodega owners are suffering because of escalating rents and competition from delivery services like Fresh Direct. A service like this could further adversely affect them. “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,” Garcia says. “To compete with bodegas and also use the ‘bodega’ name is unbelievably disrespectful.”
When your startup's public mission statement is to put thousands of corner stores out of business, you might want to pause and reassess why both the left and the right think it's time to start taking a sledgehammer to Amazon, Apple, Google and Facebook the way Ma Bell got broken up when I was a kid.
More and more I'm thinking this is looking like a much better idea all the time.