Bodegas are the cornerstone of every big city. They sit on every block, serving as tiny centers of commerce and community interaction. How could you possibly replace such vital local businesses that bring people together and give them what they need?
Former Googlers Paul McDonald and Ashwath Rajan are the founders of Bodega (creative name), a startup of pantry boxes filled with typical corner store items. The idea is that people pick up what they need, pay with their smartphone (or some other technologically annoying way that hasn’t caught on yet), and keep moving. No human contact necessary.
It’s in line with scores of apps and startups that have made lives more convenient by removing human interaction altogether. You can order full meals, transportation, cleaning services and everything else you can think of without saying a single word to another person. Bodega (uppercase B) brings that convenience into physical space.
But it’s gunning at bodegas (lowercase b), immigrant-run city staples for generations. These boxes don’t just shout gentrification, they scream it into a megaphone. The company’s logo is a cat, effectively poaching the most identifiable aspects of bodegas (along with name and inventory) while eliminating the pesky task of interacting with their nonwhite owners.
Appropriation aside, this is just dumb capitalization. Silicon Valley is a hotbed of technological prowess and forward thinking. Of all the innovation the world could use right now, this is the hot idea? A fucking pantry on the street? Are corner stores really a problem that need a market solution?
The beauty of bodegas (lower case b) is that they’re both close and far–right there if you need an emergency roll of toilet paper, but far enough to talk your drunk self out of a 3 a.m. bag of pork rinds. And if you change your mind? The bodega is still open, neon signs blazing and pork rinds waiting.
Better yet, it’s an amalgam of the area it serves. Everyone needs something from a bodega from time to time, be it an Arizona iced tea or a pack of cigarettes. It forces people to speak to one another, to see and hear and potentially befriend those who live around them. It’s that heterogeneity that makes cities thrive. Even conversations limited to a quick “thank you” go a long way at a time when human interaction is constantly framed as a chore. And you’re not finding a better deal than a $3 egg and cheese on a roll. (You might find a better egg sandwich, but that’s not the point.)
Save your “changing the model” and “profitability” replies for someone else. I know this take will probably age like open bag of Wonder Bread. In a few years there will be five of these glorified shelves on every block in Manhattan, and those of us yearning for bodegas (lowercase b) will have long been priced out of town.
Sometime down the line, though, maybe when those glass doors malfunction or some asshole up the block takes the last box of organic chocolate chip cookies, Bodega (uppercase B) shoppers will crave the community you can’t cram into a box.