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Bodega Start-Up Personal Essay

What the Creators of the Start-Up Bodega Just Don't Get About Actual Bodegas

Some of my earliest memories were formed in the bodegas of Queens, NY. I'm pretty sure I could shout my order of a hot ham, light hand on the mayo, heavy on the mustard on a roll at the tender age of 3. By the time I was 4, I was going in by myself on Saturday mornings, deciding if I wanted to add garlic and onion chips to my order.

The allure of New York City — the true New York City — isn't just the glitz and glam. I personally owe my love and recognition of the beauty of our multicultural city to bodegas. On any given day, I could be in line with a Hasidic Jew and Muslim person grabbing coffee, while I practice my Spanish with a Puerto Rican woman at the flat-top grill, an Indian man ringing up my order.

So when a Fast Company article about a new company called Bodega came out on Sept. 13, I wasn't shocked at the strong reaction on social media. New Yorkers are super protective of their identities and institutions.

But what they failed to realize in their homework and surveys is that a bodega is not something you can neatly package in an eight-square-foot box.

This start-up, cofounded by Paul McDonald (he spent 13 years as product manager at Google) and Ashwath Rajan (another Google veteran), aims to install unmanned pantry boxes in apartments, offices, dorms, and gyms stocked with perishable items that you might pick up at a convenience store. The coinciding app will allow you to unlock the box, while cameras will register what you pick up and allow Bodega to charge your credit card.

Now, the social and digital marketing side of me thinks this is great. It sounds like a cool way to provide a sleek, convenient product for us millennials, who thrive on accessibility. But the other side of me balks at the misappropriation of a cultural cornerstone that kids like myself grew up with. I mean, the founders go as far as using a cat — the unofficial mascot of every corner bodega — as their logo.

As alluded to in the Fast Company article, bodegas do not have cats because they are cute (although we can all agree they are) or because they make the perfect memes. Bodega cats are a shining symbol of a bodega, announcing to the world that it's safe to eat there. These cats hold the tireless jobs of keeping city rats at bay, and I would argue they do a better job than any exterminator or poison ever could. City rats are ruthless, after all.

On the Bodega blog (the irony in that itself is hilarious), the founders responded to some of the backlash, insisting that although they recognized there was risk of cultural appropriation in using the Spanish word, they surveyed New Yorkers and "branding people," who they say didn't find offense in it. I'd love to know who exactly they surveyed. If they went to any bodega near Jamaica Avenue in Queens, Arthur Avenue in the Bronx, or even the neighborhoods of Long Island, any customer or shop owner would have vehemently explained why the name was a bad idea. There is a fine line between assuming something as your own out of admiration and appropriating it, and Bodega crosses that line.

The founders of this app claim the purpose is to build a shopping experience of "convenience and ubiquity for people who don't have easy access to a corner store" and insist that unlike the Fast Company headline suggested, their goal isn't to obliterate mom-and-pop stores. But what they failed to realize in their homework and surveys is that a bodega is not something you can neatly package in an eight-square-foot box. Or how insensitive it might seem to use the bodega name for their technology when, in many communities where bodegas are a cornerstone, so many people have little access to the internet and smartphones.

In a world where racism is rampant, personal human connection is diminishing, and everything is accessible from an app, these Silicon Valley companies have to realize the word bodega is more than something you can monetize, and it represents more to neighborhoods and communities than just the simple exchange of cash for goods.

As I grew up, my love of bodegas never changed. It was in bodegas that I cried together, with people from all walks of life, after 9/11. It was in my local bodega where the workers would slide in a Reese's Peanut Butter Cup after a ballet recital or add extra ham (free of charge) after a soccer game, cheerleading tryouts, or tennis practice. It was the first place I went after I made my high school field hockey team and the only place I ate while applying to colleges on the weekends.

When I lost my Grams to cancer and felt alone in my grief and loss, the bodega was the first place I went. Not only did the shop owners and workers express how much they loved seeing her smile or her inquisitive personality about their lives, but they laughed with me as we remembered that she wanted to place her favorite order even after she started chemotherapy.

The idea of the start-up Bodega, on the surface, might seem genius, and I love a good app. But appropriating a historical icon and cultural institution like a bodega fails to recognize what the word means at all. With its cats, tight spaces, loud atmosphere, and several dialects of languages going, a bodega is home — not just a vending machine.

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