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Opinion ‘Bodega,’ the very bad start-up that wants to kill mom-and-pop shops

A bodega in Chinatown in New York. (Allison Joyce/Getty Images)

The headline seems designed to convey maximum despicability: “Two Ex-Googlers Want To Make Bodegas And Mom-And-Pop Corner Stores Obsolete.”

The story gets worse from there. Not only does a former technology project manager named, of all things, Paul McDonald want to replace small brick-and-mortar retailers with even smaller five-foot-wide boxes that look like they came out an Ikea catalogue. He and his co-founder are also calling their venture “Bodega,” and its logo is a cat (an animal seemingly ubiquitous in New York corner stores’ aisles).

“The vision here is much bigger than the box itself,” McDonald said of his project. “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.”

Cue the online outrage.

Bodegas — or corner stores, or minimarts, or whatever you want to call them — stand for everything Silicon Valley does not. Their whole point is that they’re run by individuals. The charm that comes from rogue felines sunning themselves in their windows or sashaying down the home goods lane is all about the absence of corporatism.

Bodega, an ‘unmanned pantry box,’ has already become America’s most hated start-up

Representatives of the characterless are attempting to destroy something central to a neighborhood’s character. And they’re doing it by co-opting the names and symbols that sum that character up so well. Worse still, if their project is a success they will likely put many immigrants (some whose fathers or grandfathers helped popularize the term “bodega” in the first place) out of work. Might as well call the invention a “Gentrification Box,” one person suggested.

See what goes into his typical DoorDash workday, and how a deliveryman can deliver ice cream without it melting. (Video: Jhaan Elker/The Washington Post)

All true, and all upsetting. But Bodega isn’t just an insulting idea. It’s also a bad one. Though community stores’ idiosyncrasies will keep customers coming back, there’s more to it. The inability of Bodega’s founders to appreciate the value of the unique has led to a bigger flaw in their business model.

“Each community tends to have relatively homogenous tastes, given that they live or work in the same place,” McDonald told Fast Company, which brought his venture into the Web’s wrathful eye. That, he thinks, will allow Bodega to customize its offerings from location to location so residents have exactly what they need in one soulless mechanized container. There’s a good chance he’s wrong.

As someone joked on Twitter, “They have the nerve to call this bodega and I don’t see any beef sticks, condoms, headphones, combs or a cat!” Exactly. I went to my local corner store this morning and purchased sour cream and onion Pringles and a single serving of grapefruit juice. I had never done this before, and I doubt it is a regular activity for anyone in my building. But those chips and that drink were exactly what I wanted to buy, and I knew my Metro K would have them.

A box the size of a not-quite-satisfactory pantry cannot possibly contain all of a community’s necessities, because, thank the Lord, we do not live in a creepy world where citizens within a certain geographic location all have the exact same desires every single day. At the moment, McDonald’s startup also does not appear to offer the alcohol and tobacco products central to a bodega, which could cause an additional roadblock.

In essence, Bodega has invented a particularly polarizing vending machine. Those have existed since literally the 1st century, when an Alexandrian mathematician discovered a way to charge people for holy water in temples. Tobacco-dispensers appeared in English taverns in the 1600s, and in the 1880s coin-operated commercial machines allowed people to buy products from stamps and postcards to Tutti-Frutti gum. When credit-card scanners made their way onto vending interfaces in the early 2000s, vending machines started selling high-ticket items such as iPads and digital cameras. Some machines make hot dogs, and one in Singapore even offers — really — Lamborghinis. None of this has stopped people from going to the Apple Store, the auto-dealership or even the ice-cream truck.

So if shoppers agree with the exercised throngs on Twitter that Bodega the start-up should not replace bodegas the storied neighborhood institutions, they can at least take solace in the reality that it probably won’t.