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Two Ex-Googlers Want to Kill Your Bodega

Sep 13, 2017

City dwellers who rely on their neighborhood corner stores for coffee, candy and community had nothing good to say about the plan of two ex-Googlers who want to disrupt the beloved mom-and-pop bodega industry.

While Fast Company, who published the story, won the online traffic battle, Paul McDonald and Ashwath Rajan appear to have lost the war of public opinion. Their vision is to place a “pantry box,” which looks like a huge vending machine, pretty much everywhere. Their new company name? "Bodega." From the story:

Bodega’s logo is a cat, a nod to the popular bodega cat meme on social media – although if the duo gets their way, real felines won’t have brick-and-mortar shops to saunter around and take naps in much longer. “The vision here is much bigger than the box itself,” McDonald says. “Eventually, centralized shopping locations won’t be necessary, because there will be 100,000 Bodegas spread out, with one always 100 feet away from you.”

Funders include First Round Capital, Forerunner Ventures, and Homebrew, along with angel investment from Facebook, Twitter, Dropbox, and Google executives.

But the urban crowd was having none of it.

Joel Martinez, a writer and co-star of the Viceland show Desu and Mero, called in the #bodegahive on Twitter. "THEY CAN TAKE OUR LIVES BUT THEY'LL NEVER TAKE OUR BODEGAAAASSSSS!!!" he tweeted.

People piled on. "Trying to destroy bodegas with a startup called “Bodega” that has a bodega cat logo is… just awful," tweeted Fogcreek CEO Anil Dash. "My bodega guy lives in my building; I'd like to see your dumb machine bring you an egg sammie at 11pm & talk about its world travels," tweeted writer Danielle Henderson.

This isn’t the first time that bodegas, those small, family-run convenience stores have come under some sort of fire.

In February, more than 1,000 bodegas across New York Citys five boroughs went on strike to protest President Trump’s executive order banning immigrants from majority Muslim countries. Many of the stores are owned by Yemeni Americans. “This shutdown of grocery stores and bodegas will be a public show of the vital role these grocers and their families play in New York’s economic and social fabric,” said one of the protest organizers on Facebook.

This past summer, Fader revisited some of the strikers and found that in many cases, the event proved to cement relationships between shop owners and the communities they serve. Tarek Sulimani, a Yemeni American, has owned his bodega in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, for over 20 years. He bought it with the help of his father-in-law. “It’s a tradition,” he says. “Yemenis help each other. When you’re new here, you get a thousand from this person, five thousand from that person. Family. Sometimes friends. You pay it back — with no interest, of course. That’s the way we work.” From the story:

He works seven days a week, often up to 14 or 15 hours a day. We talked on Thursday morning, an hour before the strike was set to begin, over the sound of cash register dings in his spotless, freshly renovated shop. A stream of customers bought sandwiches, lottery tickets, packs of cigarettes, and newspapers in English, Spanish, and Chinese.

“In this kind of business? [Striking] is a tough decision,” Sulimani told me, a dish rag in hand. “You have workers, you have responsibilities. Every hour is important for you to survive.” But people had been coming in all morning, he said, and voicing their support for the strike. Many had even insisted he keep their change, knowing that he’d be losing money later that day. “How nice are the people?!”

If you want to know why people truly love their bodegas — when my favorite one closed, I cried — then listen to this amazing podcast from Latino USA, a production of NPR and Futuro Media Group. They recently spent a day at a bodega in Harlem, home to one of the nation's biggest populations of immigrants from the Dominican Republic.

While a vending machine containing random things you've run out of — diapers, candy bars, flowers, and a bar of soap — might be welcome in some communities, it comes at a real cost to entrepreneurs and their neighbors. “What does every 'hood need? A store where you can get the randomest things," says Joel Martinez, who popped up again to defend his favorite spot. “Where else can I get a bacon egg and cheese and a fifty cent soda that will harm my fertility rate?”

But you can also talk, sit down and hang out with the people you share a zip code with, he added. "It’s a community thing as well."

Update: Bodega's Paul McDonald responded in detail on Medium. "Challenging the urban corner store is not and has never been our goal," he writes. They admit the backlash took them by surprise. "We did some homework — speaking to New Yorkers, branding people, and even running some survey work asking about the name and any potential offense it might cause. But it’s clear that we may not have been asking the right questions of the right people. Despite our best intentions and our admiration for traditional bodegas, we clearly hit a nerve this morning. And we apologize to anyone we’ve offended. Rather than disrespect to traditional corner stores — or worse yet, a threat — we intended only admiration."

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