Opinion
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    Renée Graham

    Keep your hands off my bodega, Bodega

    A web-connected vending machine from the company Bodega.
    Bodega via The New York Times
    A web-connected vending machine from the company Bodega.

    Can a glorified vending machine save the last bottle of my favorite drink for me? Will it offer kids a refuge from bullies? Can it anchor a community and give immigrants a piece of the American dream that they can pass on to their children?

    If Bodega’s founders understood real bodegas, they’d know that these neighborhood mainstays, staples of American small business, can’t be easily replaced.

    Conceived by former Google employees Paul McDonald and Ashwath Rajan, Bodega is a 5-foot wide pantry box packed with nonperishable goods. Users open it with a smartphone app and pick out what they want, while cameras record everything. Like ride-hailing services, purchases are charged directly to consumers’ credit cards. After months of testing in dorms, apartment lobbies, and offices, Bodega recently launched 50 locations on the West Coast.

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    With funding from deep-pocketed investors, McDonald told a Fast Company reporter that he and Rajan hope to have more than 1,000 of these high-tech kiosks available nationwide by the end of next year.

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    “Eventually, centralized shopping locations won’t be necessary,” McDonald said, “because there will be 100,000 Bodegas spread out, with one always 100 feet away from you.”

    We already have that — they’re called bodegas.

    It’s not enough that Bodega cribbed its name from the very thing that it wants to make extinct. Even its logo is a silhouette of a cat’s head — a smirking nod to “bodega cats” known to patrol aisles and under shelves to keep stores rodent-free. See, they like the idea of bodegas, but not actual bodegas.

    McDonald and Rajan can only see consumer buying habits and valuable advertising information, but they don’t get the distinct, deeper culture of bodegas. Yes, they sell diapers, soda, batteries, detergent, aspirin, lottery tickets, sandwiches, and dozens of other items. Yet they are more than the sum of their stocked shelves.

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    On the New York block of my childhood, the bodega was about a half-dozen doors from my family’s front stoop. As the neighborhood’s demographics shifted, so, too, did its businesses. Like the Jewish dress shops and West Indian hairdressers before them, these small stores owned first by Puerto Ricans, later Dominicans and Colombians, and then Asian and Middle Eastern immigrants, became a barometer of a community in transition.

    Every week my allowance disappeared into the bodega’s cash registers for pork rinds, Malta India, pink “Spaldeens,” Bomb Pops, and so much candy the neighborhood dentist retired early. Jose, the store’s owner, befriended the kids who frequented his store before and after school. Over the churning din of salsa all-stars Héctor Lavoe and Celia Cruz, he gave us treats for good report cards and chided us if our grades slipped. He would threaten to drop a dime to our parents if he caught us acting up. More than just a store owner, Jose was part of the village that raised us.

    Every city I’ve lived in since has bodegas and people like Jose. If an owner hears of an ill customer, groceries are delivered to their door. Some allow regular patrons, who get paid only on the 1st and 15th of the month, to run a store tab. All of them work long, exhausting days and nights, and rarely take sick days, let alone vacations.

    This is what the Bodega bros want to make obsolete.

    Of course, what they really want to make obsolete are those who own or depend on bodegas. Their myopic business plan excludes those who don’t have a credit card or smartphone. And if they wipe out bodegas, they’ll devastate people who live in food deserts and lack the means to shop elsewhere. Access to groceries could become just another brick in the technological wall separating the digital haves and have-nots. And McDonald and Rajan certainly aren’t concerned about those who will lose jobs and businesses built on sweat and perseverance.

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    While I believe that the bodegas can survive, they’re already facing challenges. Rising rents and competition from delivery services and chain stores are eroding their business, and Bodega poses a new threat. This is why gentrification is a four-letter word. Outsiders claim to love what makes a community — one usually long settled by people of color — unique. Yet from Boston to Oakland — and now, in our beloved bodegas — the endgame is always the same. What they really want is to remake those places in their own inflated self-image, swapping cultural authenticity for hipster blandness, and common sense and decency for exclusion and arrogance.

    Renée Graham can be reached at renee.graham@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @reneeygraham