It may not seem like it, but we’ve had a few shining moments of national unity this year. The solar eclipse drew people together to collectively stare at the sky; pretty much everyone (except ESPN) recognizes that Donald Trump is a white supremacist; and you can rely on the Cajun Navy to show up when FEMA won’t.
Added to the list of things that will unite Americans coast-to-coast: condemning the ever-living fuck out of two terrible Silicon Valley bros who, according to this Fast Company article, aim to “make bodegas and mom-and-pop corner stores obsolete.”
Even if you don’t live in New York City or Los Angeles, where bodegas and corner stores have helped folks responsibly attend to a late-night booty call or power through the early stages of a hangover, there is nothing middle America professes to love more than a mom-and-pop shop.
Paul McDonald, who spent 13 years as a product manager at Google, wants to make this corner store a thing of the past. Today, he is launching a new concept called Bodega with his cofounder Ashwath Rajan, another Google veteran. Bodega sets up five-foot-wide pantry boxes filled with non-perishable items you might pick up at a convenience store. An app will allow you to unlock the box and cameras powered with computer vision will register what you’ve picked up, automatically charging your credit card. The entire process happens without a person actually manning the “store.”
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.”
The video shows a bunch of white people and their one black friend happily traipsing through various workspaces (and a “gym” that actually just looks like someone’s apartment) and grabbing highlighters, toilet paper (for when it’s “go time”) and energy drinks from a wooden cabinet. Throughout it, triumphant-sounding classical music plays.
The thing is, you’re already familiar with this contraption. It used to be called a “vending machine.” It is, for all intents and purposes, a vending machine, except it offers toilet paper, toothpaste and tampons along with Cheetos and (of course) LaCroix.
This was his response:
“I’m not particularly concerned about it,” he says. “We did surveys in the Latin American community to understand if they felt the name was a misappropriation of that term or had negative connotations, and 97% said ‘no’. It’s a simple name and I think it works.”
Don’t worry, guys! Surveys were conducted! The Latins were cool with it!
Except, of course, for the ones who aren’t. Not counted in that “97%” was the chairman of the New York State Coalition of Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, Frank Garcia. He represents thousands of bodega owners in New York, and he did not mince words in the Fast Company article.
According to Garcia, many bodega owners are suffering because of escalating rents and competition from delivery services like Fresh Direct. A service like this could further adversely affect them. “Bodegas can’t compete with this technology, because it is so much more expensive to have a brick-and-mortar store than a small machine,” Garcia says. “To compete with bodegas and also use the ‘bodega’ name is unbelievably disrespectful.”
Of course, it isn’t just the Latino community that benefits from bodegas and corner stores. These neighborhood shops have long been an economic foothold for recent immigrants to the U.S. In New York City, for instance, bodegas are overwhelmingly immigrant-owned, a fact that was made clear following President Donald Trump’s Muslim ban earlier this year.
After Muslims were detained in airports throughout the country, New York City’s Yemeni bodega owners closed their shops to protest. But as Splinter’s Molly Osberg noted, their protest was the “the most patriotic” rally she had ever seen.
Which is what makes this startup a particularly cruel endeavor. Small-business owners—the people who run corner stores and mom-and-pop shops and bodegas—are often heralded as the purest examples of the American dream: enterprising, hardworking and committed to serving their communities.
But in 2017, ventures like “Bodega” are, in fact, peak America: repackaging the work of communities of color for cheaper and faster, with no shame left over to even bother calling their theft by a different name.