Culturally Challenged Bodega Startup Judged On Social Media And It ‘Aint Pretty

Written by Dana Sanchez

On the one hand, a new tech startup that is perceived as disrupting corner-store transactions is getting all kinds of attention and becoming a household name.

It’s the kind of advertising money can’t buy.

On the other hand, Bodega, started by two former Google employees, has attracted investment from high-profile firms including First Round Capital, Forerunner Ventures, and executives at Facebook and Google.

Using a cat as their logo, ex-Google staffers Paul McDonald, a former product manager, and co-founder Ashwath Rajanwant, want to make mom-and-pop bodegas, or corner stores, obsolete, according to a Fast Company report.

Bodega tech startup
Ashwath Rajan, left, and Paul McDonald, right, Bodega co-founders. Photo: Bodega

Known outside New York City as “the corner store,” bodega is the Spanish word for warehouse. It’s a term now used interchangeably with other terms outside Hispanic communities, including ones that refer to a store by what it sells (candy store, newsstand, optimo).”

The cat is a clever connection to the popular bodega cat meme that lives on social media. Bodega cats are store cats — often refugees from the street — that live in and around corner stores, delis and Hispanic/Spanish/Latin mini-marts. They have their own fans clubs.

The cats are in traditional bodegas for good reason, according to Good Food: No. 1, the food. and No. 2, the rats. In the newly reimagined boxed bodegas, there’ll be no humans or cats in attendance:

The Bodega tech startup installs unmanned pantry boxes in apartments, offices, dorms, and gyms. It promises convenience but also represents competition for many mom-and-pop stores.

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.”

Response to news of the tech startup and its Wi-Fi connected stores was swift on Twitter:

 

 

Fast Company asked McDonald if he’s worried that the name Bodega might come off as culturally insensitive.

“I’m not particularly concerned about it,” McDonald said. “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 percent said ‘no. It’s a simple name and I think it works.”

McDonald responded to the Twitter backlash in a Bodega blog, insisting that challenging the urban corner store has never been the startup’s goal. The corner stores that have been fixtures in their neighborhoods for generations have “integral human connection to their patrons that our automated storefronts never will,” McDonald said:

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. We see a future where anyone can own and operate a Bodega — delivering relevant items and a great retail experience to places no corner store would ever open.

Each Bodega is designed to house everyday essentials tailored to its location, McDonald said. For offices, that could be snacks and office supplies. On a college campus, it could be electronics, school supplies, and personal care items. In a gym, supplements and workout gear.

Frank Garcia is the chairman of the New York State Coalition of Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, which represents thousands of bodega owners. His 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, according to Fast Company.

“To me, it is offensive for people who are not Hispanic to use the name ‘bodega’ to make a quick buck,” Garcia said. “It’s disrespecting all the mom-and-pop bodega owners that started these businesses in the ’60s and ’70s.”

In his blog, McDonald focused on the Bodega name and the wave of criticism on social media. He said the response went “far beyond what we ever imagined”:

When we first came up with the idea to call the company Bodega we recognized that there was a risk of it being interpreted as misappropriation. We did some homework — speaking to New Yorkers, branding people, and even running some survey work asking about the name and any potential offense it might cause. But it’s clear that we may not have been asking the right questions of the right people.

Despite our best intentions and our admiration for traditional bodegas, we clearly hit a nerve … we apologize.”

Bodega’s product is essentially a vending machine, and vending businesses live and die by logistics, Eater reported.

At 100,000 units — the scale McDonald and Rajan envision — that’s 10 million items that are active at a time, plus reserve products for restocking, plus new products to introduce as the “machine learning” cycles out low performers.

So many unique configurations poses a set of phenomenally complex logistical conundra: How are the products purchased? Where are they warehoused? How are they bundled for distribution to their unique Bodegas? Who restocks the Bodegas? How are the restocks transported?

Critics of Bodega are already comparing the startup to Juicero, the highly investment-valued cold-press-at-home juice company that collapsed spectacularly after its $400 juicing machine was revealed to be a pricey paperweight. It’s not that the machine didn’t squeeze well — it’s that it wasn’t necessary. The fruits and vegetables in Juicero’s pre-mixed packets were already diced so finely that they were, functionally, already juice.

Sign up for the Moguldom newsletter — the most compelling business news you need to know about reversing inequality in tech, delivered straight to your inbox.


About Dana Sanchez
Dana Sanchez is the editor of Moguldom.com and AFKInsider.com. She has worked in digital and print news media as a business writer and news editor. She has a master's degree in mass communications from the University of South Florida. Prior to working in news, Dana worked in advertising.

View Comments