20 Things You Can’t Get From a Dumb Bodega Pantry Box

CC BY 4.0. Billie Grace Ward from New York, USA via Flickr

A new start-up promising competition for mom-and-pop shops completely misses the point of the glorious, humble corner store.

If fires and earthquakes and hurricanes don’t portend the End Times, this idea just might. Welcome to “Bodega,” the glorified vending machine start-up that doesn’t give a peep about mom-and-pop shops.

The company was started by two former Google employees and has been test-driving 30 of these five-foot-wide unmanned pantry boxes in the Bay Area. They just announced they are unleashing an army of 50 more on the West Coast, with plans to go national by next year.

The cultural appropriation of the name “bodega” – as family-run corner stores are known in the city – is bad enough. Commonly started by people originally from Latin America or Asia, it’s tricky territory. As Elizabeth Segran at Fast Company writes:

"Some might bristle at the idea of a Silicon Valley executive appropriating the term “bodega” for a project that could well put lots of immigrants out of work. (One of my coworkers even referred to it as “Bro-dega” to illustrate the disconnect.)

I asked McDonald [one of the founders] point-blank about whether he’s worried that the name Bodega might come off as culturally insensitive. Not really. ‘I’m not particularly concerned about it.’”

Already the idea is leaving a lot of people with a bad taste in their mouths.

Seriously, is nothing sacred?! I’m neither a city planner nor an urbanist by vocation, but as a long-term Brooklyn resident, I am a life expert in bodegas. And the idea is maddening to me. It’s such an insult to the bodega – to suggest that a dumb box full of junk could replace a community staple like the corner store feels so out of touch. For starters, one would be hard-pressed to find any of these things from an app-controlled mini-bar that doesn’t care about ruining people's livelihoods or the urban landscape:

1. A cat to admire (bodega cats are their own kind of special)
2. Wonderfully strange, un-curated products
3. A nutritionally-questionable-but-still-delicious hot egg sandwich
4. A place to leave house keys for a guest
5. Messy window displays to remind you that your city still has a human soul
6. A place to send your kids on their first forays outside alone
7. The latest neighborhood gossip
8. Prayer candles
9. A place to hold your UPS packages
10. Credit
11. Yesterday’s newspaper
12. A connection to your gentrified neighborhood’s pre-gentrified past
13. Refreshingly sloppy hand-written signs in a world of smarmy Instagrammy corporate signage
14. Summer popsicles and strangers to commiserate with about the heat
15. An ersatz neighborhood crime watch
16. Seeing new generations start working the register
17. A free pack of matches
18. Daily encounters with colorful neighbors you wouldn’t know otherwise
19. A genuine “good morning” from the mom or pop
20. Human interaction in general!

I could go on, but you get the point – are you with me? What would you miss from your corner store if it were replaced by a box?