The Bodega startup is getting major backlash from the internet and actual bodega owners
Tone deaf tech bros are getting major backlash for ripping off small businesses.
The founders of the Silicon Valley startup Bodega, a company that wants to put boxes of non perishables in apartments and offices to replace the humble corner deli, got a mouthful from real bodega owners, the internet and just about anyone who values a quality bacon egg and cheese.
“If you’d rather go to a bodega in a box, you might as well live in one,” Jay Aowas, 30, the proud owner of Jasper’s Deli in The Bronx tells Moneyish of the startup’s lack of human interaction.
The concept is a 5-foot-wide glorified vending machine stocked with fancy items like protein bars, instant noodles and La Croix that dispense via an app. The pantry automatically charges your credit card for every transaction. The founders, two former Google employees, want to install Bodega nationwide and even use a cat as the logo, ripping off a pet staple real bodegas like Jasper’s Deli actually have roaming around.
“I don’t think it’s going to work out in the long term,” says Aowas. “People in general like the feeling of going to a place where they know people.”
The startup has drawn investments from high-profile firms like First Round Capital and Forerunner Ventures, as well as Facebook, Google and more, Fast Company reported. And the business hopes to plant 100,000 bodegas with one “always 100 feet away from you,” according to one of the founders, Paul McDonald.
But it faced much backlash from critics who skewered the concept.
“The awful irony of naming the company ‘Bodega’ after the very brick and mortar institutions they aim to displace, to say nothing about the cat their logo is based on that will similarly be displaced, is offensive, utterly misguided, and frankly disrespectful to New Yorkers,” the The Association for Neighborhood and Housing Development in New York said in a statement.
The Internet agreed.
“Weird that they’re calling this heinous vending machine ‘Bodega’ and not ‘Gentrification Box,” Tristan Cooper tweeted.
Others noted that the neighborhood delis were vital to sustaining immigrant communities and livelihood.
“Make local, immigrant-owned businesses obsolete. Audacity to name it ‘Bodega.’ Ew,” tweeted Kelly Ellis.
It was enough for the founders to submit an apology.
“Despite our best intentions and our admiration for traditional bodegas, we clearly hit a nerve,” Bodega wrote in a Medium post. “And we apologize to anyone we’ve offended. Rather than disrespect to traditional corner stores — or worse yet, a threat — we intended only admiration.”
Bodegas, the Spanish word for “small store,” are also called “party store,” “grocery” or “corner store” in some parts of America, but they’re much more than a quick stop for coffee, cigarettes and the morning paper. They serve as an open 24/7, reliable neighborhood staple where the owners know your name, your breakfast sandwich order and how you like your coffee.
At Jasper’s Deli, loyal customers get sandwiches named after them, like the “Tom Kelly” — a chicken cutlet with bacon, melted mozzarella, ranch and hot sauce.
“I have people that come to my deli, they order their stuff and end up staying for a good 20 minutes talking about sports, if they had a bad day, if they had a good day — a box just wants your money, and they want you to leave so the next person can come and push the button,” says Aowas.
Aowas was inspired to open up his own business by his father, who emigrated from Yemen and opened up his first bodega in 1998.
“I grew up seeing my dad working in the deli and I saw opportunities for my own grocery, deli and soda store. I decided to take it,” he says.
There are around 16,500 bodegas in New York City alone, and 85% of them are Latino owned, according to a survey by the Bodega Association of the United States.
“They [Bodega] should be coming to us and talking to us and investing with us to help develop the already existing community and creating more jobs,” Ramon Murphy, president of the Bodega Association says.
Murphy, 60, came to Manhattan from the Dominican Republic in the early 1980s. His first job was working at a bodega in Queens. He got a loan with his brother and eventually opened his own business on Rockaway Blvd, and expanded to Hamilton Heights where he’s owned Red Apple for more than 20 years.
“Everybody goes to bodegas because they feel like it’s home,” Murphy affirms.
“When you walk to work you stop at a bodega to get a coffee or a buttered roll. We’re the people you see on your way home. Those machine can’t talk. You can’t tell them, ‘Oh I didn’t get paid yet, can I have a loaf of bread and I’ll pay you at the end of the week?’” says Murphy.
“We’re doing community work. Families trust us. When people need information, they come to us. We give people directions. You don’t get rich, but you’re living and you have a job.”
Brooklyn native Amaris Castillo’s family bodega in St. Petersburg, Florida put her through college.
“Bodegas have supported my entire family from the moment my parents arrived to the US in the 1980s,” says Castillo, 30, whose parents originally opened up a bodega in Flatbush, Brooklyn before relocating the business to Florida.
“It is what actually paid for my grad school at Columbia. I didn’t get financial aide. It was so hard to pay back. A bodega is more than a store, it’s a community space. It’s where people feel at home – especially recent immigrants who might feel marginalized walking down the street,” she adds.
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