US start-up Bodega apologises after online backlash

14 Sep 2017

From left: Bodega co-founders Ashwath Rajan and Paul McDonald. Image: Bodega blog

Bodega has issued an apology after touching a nerve with many people online.

Paul McDonald and Ashwath Rajan, two former Google veterans, announced the launch of their start-up, Bodega, on 13 September. The pair spoke to Fast Company about the venture, essentially a 5ft-wide pantry box filled with items you might find at your local corner shop.

An app permits you to unlock the box, and cameras register what you’ve picked up, automatically charging your card for the items.

A future without corner shops?

McDonald spoke of a future where “centralised shopping locations won’t be necessary because there will be 100,000 Bodegas spread out, with one always 100ft away from you”.

Funding for the concept was secured from several firms and angel investors at Facebook, Twitter, Dropbox and Google, and there are 30 test Bodegas in the Bay Area in gyms, apartment lobbies and offices.

As opposed to pitching itself as a retail space, Bodega aims to market itself as an amenity for property managers, with different products for different locations based on the buying habits of those around it.

Bodega backlash

The reaction online to the news of this new venture has been less than stellar. Many people are taking issue with the potential negative effect Bodega would have on the original bodegas dotted on street corners in American cities, usually owned by families.

Although McDonald maintains that the Latin American community were fine with the usage of the name according to surveys, it doesn’t seem to match the negative reactions expressed by many people.

Chair of the New York State Coalition of Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, Frank Garcia, is vehemently against the concept, telling Fast Company: “Real bodegas are all about human relationships within a community, having someone you know greet you and make the sandwich you like.”

People also expressed their annoyance at the company’s use of a cat as the logo, seeing it as capitalising on the ubiquitous feline guests that are often seen in these corner stores.

Not asking the right questions

McDonald addressed the backlash in a blogpost, saying: “While we were hoping for a big response, the reaction that we got this morning certainly wasn’t what we expected.”

He denied that Bodega was aiming to put corner stores out of business, and emphasised the important human relationships inherent in these small shops. “Their owners know what products to carry and, in many cases, who buys what. And they’re run by people who, in addition to selling everything from toilet paper to milk, also offer an integral human connection to their patrons that our automated storefronts never will.”

The criticism of the name itself was also tackled by McDonald, who said that although the company did discuss worries around appropriation, they may have “not been asking the right questions of the right people”.

McDonald concluded by saying the company would be reviewing all criticism received. For people such as Garcia, though, it was a little too late. “At least businesses like 7-Eleven tried to work with bodegas understanding that they could take them out of business, so they offered franchises.”

Ellen Tannam was a journalist with Silicon Republic, covering all manner of business and tech subjects