Silicon Valley Now Wants to Put Your Local Mom-and-Pop Bodega Out of Business

Two Google-vets are trying to change where you stop to get your snack. With their new concept business, daftly called “Bodega,” they are trying to rebrand a rent-free, scent-free version of your local corner store, making it into something that looks like an Ikea-empowered vending machine.

Real bodegas have long been owned by people of color and first-generation immigrants, and this new concept shop is just another repulsive example of how tech money erodes the economies of communities of color. In the end, its exhausted start-up ploy and the grand naivete of its founders seem more like a mechanism to hurt long-time local economies and the financial lives of people who run them, taking an established social ritual and putting it in a vacuum.

In a time when corporate takeovers pile along suburban sidewalks, major cities like New York, L.A., and San Francisco exist on small mom-and pop shops like bodegas. Not only are these corner stores an economic institution, they are community institutions.

As one bodega employee told NPR, “You know the people. When you work for a corporation, it’s just about in and out. We don’t do that. We talk to our community about what’s going on.” His store is L.E.S. Mini Mart, a bodega on the Lower East Side owned by immigrants from Bangladesh.

But replacing the mom-and-pop corner store market to fit big corporate appetites is exactly what Paul McDonald and Ashwath Rajan, owners of Bodega, aim to do. Starting in the Bay Area, the bastion of the Silicon Valley, they hope to target their audience’s spending habits, marketing choice non-perishables in proximal vending machines, a.k.a. “Bodegas.”

As McDonald visions, “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.”

This seems like a falsely futuristic and ahistoric concept. Especially since New York’s bodegas have always marketed themselves as part of the same get-up-and-go culture many run their lives on.  Moreover, McDonald’s statement is grossly limited in view, discrediting the first entrepreneurs of corner stores-- Puerto Ricans who immigrated to New York during World War II -- who continue to own bodegas today. It brashly overlooks the labor of many people of color and immigrants of this country.

Besides, selling tampons and makeup remover at a sorority doesn’t make Bodega any more genius, rather it's creepy and conventionally gendered.

Though Bodega’s non-perishable Cheez-Its and Nut-Thins might tie you over until lunch, they don’t express the diversity of diets and snacking habits of the communities around them. For instance, where are the Parle-G Cookies and Ovaltine common at the South-Indian owned marketplace near me? Long-time bodegas reflect the diversity of diets in the U.S. and don’t cater to one community. If they do, it’s probably not the dominant ‘American’ diet we see at Safeway. On the other hand, Bodega seems to have no desire to cater to this multiplicity, and stocks their business with items that merely give another buck to white-washed companies like Kelloggs.

So while McDonald may argue that “by studying [consumer] behavior, we’re trying to eventually figure out how the needs of people in one apartment differ from those in another,” the real question is: just whose behavior is Bodega interested in tracking? And what does a community lose when a corner store closes? While bodegas are often criticized as a place to buy your cigarettes and soda, any New Yorker knows that they are also a community hub that connects the city to many of its ethnic heritages.

At a time when mom-and-pop corner stores are struggling to keep in business, embarking on a business called Bodega is unquestionably immoral. Instead of having a video camera vending machine take a picture of your credit card, we should all be frequenting the healthy reinventions and politically-active immigrant-owned institutions that keep us loaded on carbs and good passing conversation.

Bodega’s venture is just another deluded vision of tech-gentrification. We shouldn’t be blinded by its call for more of late-capitalism’s quick fixes. Instead we should be buying our dates and yogurt locally to keep our neighborhood delis in business.


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