The latest startup sensation sounds pitilessly inhuman, callously privileged, and totally white—which means it’s the best disruption that Silicon Valley angel investment can buy.
Fast Company’s Elizabeth Segran tapped into a vein of white-hot social-media outrage this morning with a jaw-dropping report on a startup called Bodega. The pitch is simple: Its founders want to replace the bodega on the corner with an unmanned robo-pantry in the lobby. On paper, it’s a perfectly fine (if logistically complex) idea—outside Silicon Valley, we call them vending machines, but whatever. This specific startup, however, came with a whiff of racial insensitivity and economic privilege that the internet, shall we say, picked up on immediately.
Segran, sensing this, directly asked Bodega’s founders one big question (and I paraphrase): Where the %#&@ do you get off calling a startup aimed at demolishing mom-and-pop corner stores “bodega”? The answers, from Google veterans Paul McDonald and Ashwath Rajan: It tested fine with Latinos.
But the internet had more questions, and many more problems with Bodega. Here is a list of them.
1. Where am I supposed to get my egg and cheese?
2. Not from a goddamned vending machine, that’s where I’m not buying my breakfast sandwich from.
3. This is the pitch: One Bay Area company can fulfill the needs of millions of people served by corner stores, because algorithms.
4. What happens if I’m not literally in my house and I need to buy a pack of smokes or a stain-stick or some Takis?
5. What’s supposed to happen to those moms and pops? While Bodega’s founders don’t owe immigrant entrepreneurs anything—that’s capitalism, folks—it’s not clear why anyone should take any satisfaction in patronizing a business that’s put a target on them.
6. Where am I supposed to buy flowers?
7. There’s room for vending machines in luxury apartment buildings and bodegas on the corner. But pitching a startup as a bodega killer? It’s a hell of a way to buy ill will with a target demo. You might win some, but you really lost one.
8. Wal-Mart, but at a Hyperlocal Urban Scale, and Also Automated—is compelling to precisely nobody.
9. Wasn’t drone delivery the big idea to serve laze-balls who can’t be bothered to walk down to the corner store to buy Frosted Flakes?
Carry yourself with the confidence of a white guy pitching a vending machine as something revolutionary
— Marcus 🇧🇧 (@marcusjdl) September 13, 2017
12. “your bodega guy is literally your best friend in a city like nyc.” —CityLab’s Tanvi Misra
13. Where am I supposed to get an egg and cheese?
14. Yes and with bacon, please.
15. Here’s actual-bodega patron Dannielle S. from Crown Heights talking to CityLab’s Teresa Mathew about Bodega: “I’ve been coming to this bodega at 690 Franklin Avenue 27 years. When you’ve been coming to a bodega for 27 years, it’s not just convenience. It’s about the relationships you build with the owners of the establishments, those good mornings you look forward to, those personal conversations. People don’t just come to the bodega for their bread, their milk and their eggs. We come for our daily meet-ups, we come for our hellos and good mornings. And a box can’t do that for us. In the bodega we all look out for each other because we understand when one comes in and does something wrong it affects all of us. A box doesn’t have a feeling. I get feeling when I walk into this store in the morning: love. It’s like walking from home to home, like you’re walking out of your dining room and into your pantry.”
16. This all could have been avoided if this startup had been pitched as a CVS killer. Nobody cares about chain drugstores.
17. Bodegas sell weird sex pills. Weird sex pills are hilarious!
18. Many critics focused on Bodega’s adoption of a feline logo, which seemed particularly cruel, given all the bodega cats that would be rendered homeless by the devices.
19. Bodega’s masterminds also warn that their robot boxes will “use computer vision systems and machine learning to recognize the items you take.” Can you imagine anything worse than having Skynet know exactly how many boxes of LaCroix and condoms you go through in a month?
20. Maybe a Bodega can stock Soylent, to appeal to people who also think that eating delicious food is a grim burden. Why do tech wizards keep thinking of new and more horrible ways to avoid dealing with people? How come they hate being human?
21. Things that this startup Bodega probably won’t sell that any good corner bodega definitely sells: durags, burners, Hot Cheetos, the latest advances in synthetic drugs, votive candles, undershirts, scratch-off tickets, fake gold, fake Rolexes, fake RayBans—fake everything, really—dominoes, air fresheners, porn, malt liquor, and decent fresh coffee.
22. Another thing that really good bodegas sell that this startup Bodega won’t sell: fresh fruits and vegetables.
23. Still another thing that really good bodegas sell that this startup Bodega won’t sell: groceries particular to a local ethnic community. If Bodega’s founders aren’t selling what Jamaican or Vietnamese or Orthodox Jewish customers want, there’s apparently no feedback mechanism for them to say, “Hey, stock kosher.”
24. Bodega’s founders pledge that eventually their concept will be so widely distributed they will be ubiquitous (“with one always 100 feet away from you”). But that will probably depend a lot on who “you” are.
“For the past 10 months, the pair has been testing out the concept at 30 locations in the Bay Area ranging from apartment lobbies to dorms to offices to gyms,” Segran writes. “The idea is to preempt what people might need, then use machine learning to constantly reassess the 100 most-needed items in that community.”
So you need to live in or near a dorm, office, gym, or apartment building—all of which are private and all of which tend to be clustered in economically privileged corridors. The Bodega concept is destined for the places that Google Maps highlights as “areas of interest”—neighborhoods that don’t rely on the corner store for groceries. In other words, it’s not a startup that screams equity.
25. Any unmanned pantry that tries to sell an iPhone is going to get robbed, immediately. I will do it myself.
26. Bodega’s founders are passing their pantries off as an amenity, meaning that someone else pays the property taxes, utilities, and so forth associated with their commercial retail operation. It’s a rip-off.
27. The uniqueness of a corner store is a feature, not a bug: Bodega’s founders promise a homogeneous experience. That misses out on the feeling of pride and ownership that comes in sharing knowledge that only your neighborhood possesses. (Only me and Brentin Mock know that the sandwiches at Millie’s Market are The Truth.)
28. The existing corner store is a site of relentless innovation. No, really: Bodega shopkeepers are the first to pick up on trends like fidget spinners—not retail giants and not customers. An unmanned store organized by computer learning based on customer preferences isn’t trying to sell them on new products.
29. Bodega’s founders, seeing the company trending on Twitter today, quickly responded with this mea culpa: ”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,” co-founder McDonald wrote in a post. Nevertheless, they persisted.
30. Seriously. Do not mess with my breakfast sandwich.