Last Wednesday, not long after Fast Company sparked tabloid headlines with its profile of a start-up that hoped to install unstaffed pantry boxes in apartments, offices, dorms, and gyms — under the name Bodega — emails started pouring in to Frank Garcia.
Garcia has represented thousands of bodega owners as chair of the New York State Coalition of Hispanic Chambers of Commerce. (He recently became chair of the National Association of Latino State Chambers.) In his interview with Fast Company, he offered harsh words for the Silicon Valley–backed start-up: “To me, it is offensive for people who are not Hispanic to use the name ‘bodega,’ to make a quick buck,” he told the publication. “It’s disrespecting all the mom-and-pop bodega owners that started these businesses in the ’60s and ’70s.”
Then the messages came, arriving through the Hispanic Chambers of Commerce’s website. “People were angry,” Garcia tells the Voice. “They’re wondering, ‘How can I help?,’ ‘Do you need money?’ ‘Do you need a lawyer?’ Someone emailed me just to say that when they’re coming home late at night, ‘the bodega knows my name, will make me a sandwich, and make sure I get home all right.’ ”
A Bodega, unlike a bodega, promises to offer customized, nonperishable items in five-foot-wide pantry boxes. A phone app will allow users to unlock the box, and surveillance cameras will register what they’ve picked up, automatically charging their credit cards. Imagine a pantry filled with power bars and Gatorades in a gym, or popcorn, tampons, and makeup remover in a sorority house. This month, the San Francisco–based founders opened 50 Bodega locations on the West Coast, with plans for more than 1,000 locations across the country by 2018.
With the increasing anxiety over keeping small businesses afloat, the Bodega start-up hit a very sensitive nerve. Bodega co-founder Paul McDonald referred the Voice to this statement on Fast Company’s profile, admitting that “the reaction that we got…certainly wasn’t what we expected,” and insisting that “challenging the urban corner store is not and has never been our goal.” (Fast Company’s headline, “Two Ex-Googlers Want To Make Bodegas And Mom-And-Pop Corner Stores Obsolete,” wasn’t helpful in that regard; neither was McDonald’s statement to the publication that with his product, “centralized shopping locations won’t be necessary, because there will be 100,000 Bodegas spread out, with one always 100 feet away from you.”)
McDonald’s company notes that actual bodegas offer thousands of items, whereas they’ll provide only eight square feet of retail shelf space to hold fewer than a hundred nonperishable items, but no fresh food.
It’s a concept that led the Association for Neighborhood and Housing Development to dub the concept “Brodega.” (The company’s choice of a “bodega cat” as its logo has come in for particular criticism; Garcia has suggested the possibility of a lawsuit to force a logo change, but declined to go into specifics.) Quenia Abreu, president of the New York Women’s Chamber of Commerce, who also works with bodega owners, says, “We’re honored they wanted to use the name, but if they try to trademark it…we would fight for that, definitely.”
The history of New York’s beloved corner stores starts with the first generation of arrivals from Puerto Rico in the 1940s and ’50s. Latinx-owned bodegas expanded across the city, many as the sole shopping outlet in neighborhoods underserved by retail and grocers. Ramón Murphy, president of the Bodega Association of the United States, says there are roughly 14,000 bodegas across the city today, with an increasing number owned by Arab Americans.
For most New York bodega owners, app-driven vending machines are less of a threat than soaring rents, according to Murphy. “That’s the biggest concern on the brain,” he says. “Every time you see a bodega close, there’s only one reason. It’s the rent. Bodegas don’t close for anything…except for a rent problem.” Garcia estimates five to six Hispanic businesses close a day throughout New York, thanks to rising commercial rents caused by widespread gentrification.
While the city has laws protecting affordable housing, there’s nothing similar to stop landlords from drastically increasing rent on mom-and-pop storefronts. (In 2015, one longtime Boerum Hill bodega facing a rent increase from $4,000 to $10,000 plastered “Artisanal Rent Hike Price Sale” signs on its window, advertising Dickson’s Farms Condoms for $24.97.) The Small Business Jobs Survival Act, a bill that would require landlords to offer multiyear leases and submit to binding arbitration, has been around since the 1980s, and is currently sponsored by a majority of councilmembers. Yet it’s remained stalled, with real estate lobbyists questioning its constitutionality.
Lena Afridi, policy coordinator for equitable economic development for the Association for Neighborhood and Housing Development, says that “the language exists when we’re talking about housing and gentrification…but it doesn’t really exist concerning small businesses.” ANHD began small-business anti-displacement work last year, and helped pass the city’s first commercial tenant anti-harassment legislation. The Bodega drama, she says, “was a moment where people — who have seen all these changes in their neighborhood — understood that the bodega is something that’s crucial and part of New Yorkers’ lives. It elicited an immediate response that doesn’t often come from threats to other small businesses.”
It’s too early to tell whether the idea will take off; a Business Insider article found that in many of the San Francisco locations Bodega was supposedly tested in, the cases were nowhere to be found, though employees at one location with a confirmed Bodega said they were glad to have it since shopping options were few near their office.
That may play out differently in New York, where actual bodegas are more prevalent than most places in the country. Still, in a competitive real estate market where property developers test a rotation of amenities to woo tenants, Bodega will likely make an appearance by 2018 in a new rental or condo development. (It’s also worth mentioning that Eater editor Helen Rosner has questioned the logistics of stocking customized items in Bodegas across the country, which she calls “an intensely complex logistical apparatus.”)
“It’s a vending machine! Can you buy a gallon of milk in there?” asks Abreu. “People like to go into bodegas, people want to have a conversation, they want to have an interaction.”
Murphy echoes the sentiment. “We know, especially in a low-income community, we’re part of the community, we’re working to help the community,” he says. “No machine can do that.”