This Company Wants to Disrupt Your Corner Bodega — And New Yorkers Are Not Having It

The latest in a series of recent announcements where privileged, disconnected, and oblivious Silicon Valley tech bros are trying to gentrify our communities through “disruption,” a company founded by two former Google employees wants to make urban corner stores a thing of the past —and New Yorkers past and present, in particular, are just not having it.

According to an announcement this week by FastCompany, which quickly went viral (and not in a good way), the startup called Bodega installs unmanned pantry boxes in apartments, offices, dorms, and gyms with the promise of convenience but also competition for many mom-and-pop stores — actual corner bodegas, primarily run by hard-working immigrants.

Working similarly to the minibar in your boutique hotel room, Bodega’s (IKEA credenza-like) 5-foot-wide pantry boxes are filled with shelf-stable corner store items and an app unlocks the box while digital cameras powered by computer vision will register items you remove and charge your credit card appropriately — all without your friendly corner bodega owner.

“What really makes me so sad is [the loss of] this sense of community and family,” former New Yorker and NYU grad Marisa Tom told Apartment Therapy today. “You need that in a city like NYC, where everything else can be fleeting. Your local bodega is the bedrock of your little world, and if you’re lucky they remember you as much as you remember them. Without my two favorite 2nd Avenue bodegas, who would have had my chocolate donut and iced coffee waiting for me every morning, Monday to Friday? And who would have let me have a monthly grocery tab? Certainly not an ‘unmanned pantry box!'”

And it’s just that lack of that friendly, personal daily interaction that has many urbanites (New Yorkers, in particular) up in arms. They don’t want corner bodegas to be “disrupted” by technology and garnered obsolete in the process.

Not only are many offended by the Silicon Valley startup trademarking (and culturally appropriating) the name Bodega, they’re also not having it on a conceptual level — seeing the idea as not only unoriginal but completely devoid of the humanity that makes corner bodegas the beloved urban institutions that they are.

As Facebook commenter Tony Chuah said, “It’s one thing to disrupt big business, [but] it’s another to rip up the fabric of community and small business. You can’t manufacture that kind of disgust.”

In fact, just a day after announcing the company, Paul McDonald, the CEO of Bodega, yesterday wrote two blog posts on Medium (here and here) stating that he didn’t see the outrage coming — and conceding in a follow-up interview with FastCompany that he and his cofounder didn’t fully understand the implications of calling the company Bodega and the social media backlash that it would spark.

CNN and the New York Times (and nearly every business publication) have more in-depth coverage about the furor over Bodega — and longtime businesses named Bodega, like Boston’s beloved secret sneaker shop, are furiously trying to distance themselves from the new startup.

Readers, what are your thoughts? Tell us in the comments.

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