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Leon Kaye headshot

The Well-Deserved Backlash Against the Automated Bodega for the 1 Percent

By Leon Kaye

What do a cold-packed baby food delivery service and a next-gen vending machine startup have in common? Both claim they are solving a problem, but exclude much of the population from their purported benefits - while giving people more ammunition to resent Silicon Valley and the clueless 1 percent.

In the case of Once Upon a Farm, the idea is to ship foil packets of baby food at a price more than twice of what they would cost at a grocery store, with vague promises to drive “social change.”

But the startup Bodega is on a mission far more nefarious, say its critics. The goal of two ex-Google employees is to make sundry products such as deodorants, tampons and protein bars readily available via a smartphone app. Each of these pallid automated glass boxes would change its 100 or so various products over time based on what was being purchased. As ex-Googler Paul McDonald told Fast Company:

“Each community tends to have relatively homogenous tastes, given that they live or work in the same place. By studying their buying behavior, we’re hoping to eventually figure out how the needs of people in one apartment building differ from those in another. We could customize the items in one dorm versus the next.”

While McDonald and his business partner, Ashwath Rajan, did not exactly say they wanted to make the iconic corner bodegas of New York City “obsolete,” the article’s title and unflattering photo of the two lads posing next to their glass box clearly struck a nerve across social media. (You can track the backlash on Twitter with #BodegaGate.) From the onset, the interview with reporter Elizabeth Segran came across as tone-deaf and even arrogant. Most laughable was their insistence that so-called “surveys” in the Latino community found 97 percent of respondents agreeing that appropriating the term “bodega” was not a problem.

Bodegas have long been part of life in New York for their hangover-curing breakfast creations, chopped cheese sandwiches, empanadas and last-minute sales of toothpaste and toilet paper. Even more importantly, they are neighborhood gathering places. In addition to serving smiles, and questions about one’s family or day, bodegas have also been economic and cultural steppingstones for immigrant families making a new life in the U.S.

While associated with New York and to a lesser degree, Los Angeles, “bodega culture” has long been part of the American experience – only in different forms across the country. Cambodians started out in California by often running donut shops after fleeing the Khmer Rouge. Vietnamese refugees thrived in nail salons as they offered steady jobs while learning English and acclimating to a new life. Joe Biden was derided for his unartful comments about Indian-Americans and convenience stores a decade ago. The truth, however, is that many ethnicities anchored themselves in America with the corner store, including my Armenian grandparents, who ran a small grocery store in a dusty San Joaquin Valley town seven days a week for twenty years after moving to California.

But in the city that never sleeps and where walking is often that “last mile” from finally getting from the office to home, the corner bodega has a special hold on New York's psyche. Many have been passed on to younger generations. Nowadays, many challenges lie ahead; for example, rising rents across New York City are forcing many to close.

Nevertheless, bodegas are still a powerful force. Earlier this year, many closed in protest of the Trump Administration’s immigration ban. So from the point of view of many bodega owners, a smartphone-operated box cannot compete with the customer service and quick meals-on-the-go they offer. Others, however, not only see this startup as a threat to their livelihoods, but also as an insult. As repeated in many news stories, the head of the New York State Coalition of Hispanic Chamber of Commerce quickly slammed the idea.

After all, the trademarked name alone is bad enough; but the logo's use of a cat, long a symbol of bodegas' neighborliness, was also a slap in the face to many bodega owners. “It’s either the worst-named startup of the year, or one of the greatest Silicon Valley heel gimmicks of all time,” said The Verge.

McDonald has quickly apologized, but his mea culpa is worse than the company’s initial kickoff. “While we were hoping for a big response, the reaction that we got this morning certainly wasn’t what we expected,” wrote McDonald, which makes one wonder if he or the market research firm advising him bothered to visit a New York street corner other than, say, 5th Avenue and 64th or 65th.

“We want to make sure our name — among other decisions we make — reflects those values. We’re here to learn and improve and hopefully bring a useful, new retail experience to places where commerce currently doesn’t exist,” continued McDonald.

The absurdity of that comment is that he and Rajan are talking about offices, gyms, apartment lobbies and dormitories. Despite McDonald’s protests, this business is, in fact, about selling more stuff to the “stereotypical Whole Foods set.” Hence Vice was unleashed in their assessment of this concept: “The last thing the upper-middle class needs is another gadget that makes life marginally easier and more isolated from the outside world.”

McDonald is clearly an outlier in the millennial world, one that increasingly demands that the companies for which they work have a social purpose. And therein lies the link to Once Upon a Farm. What is this social mission? Commerce is often non-existent in “food deserts,” remote rural towns and low-income neighborhoods. The business plan outlining the need for a “new retail experience” for the tech worker who forgot to bring the calendula-scented deodorant for his post-office workout should earn a C- in a business school marketing module at best.

Hence the sad tale of a marketing campaign that ranks with other poorly executed promotions such as those for the Ford Edsel, New Coke and Trump Steaks. No wonder why Mashable was so mocking in its tone. “These box things were designed to replace bodegas, and nobody wants them,” summed up Colin Daileda.

Image credit: Bodega.ai

Leon Kaye headshot

Leon Kaye has written for 3p since 2010 and become executive editor in 2018. His previous work includes writing for the Guardian as well as other online and print publications. In addition, he's worked in sales executive roles within technology and financial research companies, as well as for a public relations firm, for which he consulted with one of the globe’s leading sustainability initiatives. Currently living in Central California, he’s traveled to 70-plus countries and has lived and worked in South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay.

Leon’s an alum of Fresno State, the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Southern California's Marshall Business School. He enjoys traveling abroad as well as exploring California’s Central Coast and the Sierra Nevadas.

Read more stories by Leon Kaye