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

A Bodega “unmanned pantry box” (courtesy of Bodega.)

Here’s the pitch for Silicon Valley’s newest start-up: It’s called Bodega, and it’s a case of nonperishable goods — the kind you’d usually get at a neighborhood corner store or bodega — that comes in an “unmanned pantry box.” It looks like this:

The company was founded by two former Google employees, Paul McDonald and Ashwath Rajan. Customers can unlock the box and purchase products via an app. It brings products “to where people already are so that they can access them immediately, when they need them. This beats out any two-hour delivery — or even half-hour delivery — alternative,” McDonald told Fast Company. It could make corner stores obsolete.

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

If you’re keeping up, you may have already identified the major problems here; the reasons people on Twitter were practically foaming at the mouth with fury at the announcement of this visionary new company. Let’s parse them, shall we?

Number one: What the hell is an “unmanned pantry box?” IT’S A HIGHFALUTIN’ VENDING MACHINE. Congratulations, you just tricked people into giving you millions in venture capital for a vending machine. At best, this is a new Juicero — a product that sounds great on paper, but is completely unnecessary in real life, because a better or easier version of it already exists.

Number two: To think that this box of tampons and Cheez-It can replace a bodega is a fundamental misunderstanding of what a bodega is. Bodegas serve fresh egg sandwiches! They’re places where the community can interact! They’re woven into the fabric of cities, and only someone who has never really spent time in one would aim to eliminate them with a midcentury modern-looking glass case.

To add insult to injury, the company’s logo is a cat, a nod to the cats that populate many of New York’s bodegas.

Number three, and we’ve saved the most offensive for last: Why are these entrepreneurs so eager to make obsolete a business that is one of the best ways for recent immigrants to this country to build a life and provide for their families? It’s ignorant at best, and chillingly heartless at worst. Bodegas aren’t a problem to be solved — they’re a life vest for people who may have come to this country with nothing. They’re the American Dream.

McDonald initially told Fast Company he wasn’t worried that naming his company after the very industry he aims to displace is insensitive. He said he took a survey to see if people in the Latin American community in San Francisco, where the boxes are already operational, would be offended, and the answer was no. “It’s a simple name and I think it works,” he said. But after the backlash, McDonald issued an apology on the company blog.

“Despite our best intentions and our admiration for traditional bodegas, we clearly hit a nerve this morning, we apologize. Rather than disrespect to traditional corner stores — or worse yet, a threat — we intended only admiration. We commit to reviewing the feedback and understanding the reactions from today. Our goal is to build a longterm, durable, thoughtful business and we want to make sure our name — among other decisions we make — reflects those values,” he wrote.  He also said that the company isn’t trying to eliminate immigrant jobs. “We want to bring commerce to places where commerce currently doesn’t exist. Rather than take away jobs, we hope Bodega will help create them.”

He aims to take the boxes nationwide soon, envisioning them on college campuses and as an amenity in the lobbies of hotels and big apartment buildings.

Based on the fierce outcry on Twitter, it seems like New Yorkers, in particular, will do their best to prevent that from happening.

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