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Bodegas in New York City don’t need to be ‘disrupted’

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Or, why Bodega-the-app is unlikely to find a foothold in the five boroughs

Shawn Hoke/Curbed Flickr Pool

Silicon Valley seems to be obsessed with “disrupting” services that already exist—and, for decades, have worked just fine—in New York City, whether it’s laundromats or dollar vans or even dog-walkers.

Now, we can add bodegas to that list; Fast Company reports that a start-up calling itself Bodega has set out to replicate the convenience of corner stores, but without, well, the stores themselves. (It is, at its core, a fancy vending machine.)

The headline of Fast Company’s piece—“Two Ex-Googlers Want To Make Bodegas And Mom-And-Pop Corner Stores Obsolete”—is obviously meant to provoke, but it’s also not too far off from the truth. The co-founders have appropriated the stereotypical markers of a New York City bodega, from the name itself to its logo, a cat head meant to evoke those shops’ feline overlords.

But even though they’re happy to swipe the hallmarks of a neighborhood icon, the co-founders, Paul McDonald and Ashwath Rajan, don’t seem to understand what a bodega represents within a community.

“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.” (Currently, they have about 30 installed around—where else?—San Francisco.)

But in many places—and certainly in New York City—a bodega functions as more than simply a place to buy necessities. It’s an essential neighborhood hub, where locals congregate and gossip about what’s happening in the area. The person running your local bodega may hold packages for you, or give keys to the friend you have staying in your apartment; they might provide a safe haven for you if you’re coming home later than normal; they probably know exactly how you like your egg-and-cheese sandwich in the mornings, or the exact amount of sugar you want in your coffee.

There’s also the fact that the Bodega concept is clearly marketed toward folks who are already in fairly privileged positions. Here’s how it’s meant to work, as explained by Fast Company:

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.”

But not everyone has a smartphone, or knows how to use an app in this way. And not everyone has a credit card. An actual corner bodega, however, accepts cash (and government subsidies like SNAP—Bodega, presumably, does not), and may even provide credit for shoppers who need it. For those in lower-income areas, or for older patrons, these services are irreplaceable.

And this, ultimately, is why Bodega-the-company comes off as utterly tone-deaf; it ignores the fact that the human experience that an actual bodega provides cannot be replicated by a tricked-out minibar. It’s almost as if the co-founders (ex-Google employees, for what it’s worth) have never lived in a city where bodega as a crucial neighborhood resource.

Is there actually a chance of this start-up displacing real bodegas in New York City? Not likely; according to its website, Bodega wants to partner with “offices, apartments, gyms, and college campuses”—so it’s highly unlikely that this concept will replace your corner store. (Not to mention the logistics of tackling such a goal.)

It might also face stiff opposition in New York: Frank Garcia, the chairman of the New York State Coalition of Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, told Fast Company that he “would ask my members not to allow these machines in any of their properties in New York State.” Bodegas are already threatened by rising rents and New York’s ultra-competitive real estate market, and neighborhoods suffer when these essential services are lost—a fact that seems to be lost on the folks behind Bodega-the-app-version.

“Real bodegas are all about human relationships within a community, having someone you know greet you and make the sandwich you like,” Garcia told Fast Company. We couldn’t agree more.