We Asked Bodega Workers What They Thought of the Startup That Wants to Make Them Obsolete

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Bodega and corner deli culture in New York is sacred. A new start-up, called Bodega, threatens to disrupt this culture with its automated mini bodegas slinging soap and snacks in offices, dorms, and apartment buildings.

Started by two former Google employees, the startup installs five-foot-wide counters stocked with non-perishable essentials like toiletries and canned food in convenient locations like offices, apartment building lobbies, and dormitories. Using an app, customers can unlock the cabinet, and—similar to Amazon’s cashier-free store—the box uses a camera to track what customers select and charge their account.

On Wednesday, Bodega announced it was expanding from its original trial locations in the Bay area to 50 new locations across the west coast. The company, which has already raised millions in funding, has garnered a lot of attention for its name, business plan, and depressingly accurate view of the millennial market (why talk to a person when you can interact with machines?). But can a counter with a few staples really replace your local bodega?

I popped over to a few neighborhood shops here in Brooklyn to find out what the owners and employees think. For the most part, they’re not sweating it, because bodegas can offer things a cold machine never can, like cats, human interaction, and—crucially—beer.

Fernando Espinal, New Grocery and Deli

Image: Kaleigh Rogers/Motherboard

“I’m not worried, it’s totally different,” Espinal told me. “We’ll keep doing the same traditional things.”

Espinal said that bodegas have an advantage because of the variety they can offer, from fresh-made sandwiches to produce to items that a machine would never legally be able to sell, at least in New York, like cigarettes and beer.

“You can’t get a sandwich made at a machine,” he told me. At least not a good one.

Joel Rodriguez, Rodriguez Grocery and Deli

Image: Kaleigh Rogers/Motherboard

Rodriguez was a little more hesitant about the concept, noting that a lot of young people might prefer the convenience of a machine over the corner store.

“People just want to get in and out as fast as they can, so it could be a problem,” Rodriguez told me.

Still, he said there’s something special about your local store.

“There aren’t as many bodegas any more,” he said. “I feel like people enjoy coming in every day and saying hi to us.”

Judith Beleran, Khim’s Millenium Market IX

Image: Kaleigh Rogers/Motherboard

“It depends on the community,” Beleran told me. “It will effect bodegas, for sure. But if the people are really satisfied with customer service, it’s not going to impact us much.”

She told me that bodegas and delis have such a specific role in the community, people end up feeling loyal to their local corner shop. And since they’ve managed to survive the spread of big chain stores, like Whole Foods and Duane Reade, there must be something special.

“I hear it from our customers,” said. “Loyalty is one word for it. But we’ll see.”

Ali Abdo, North 7th Market

Abdo didn’t feel like having his picture taken but said I could take a photo of the store. Image: Kaleigh Rogers/Motherboard

Ali Abdo shrugged when I told him about the startup, saying it could take a bite out of business but can never replace the multifunctional mom and pop shops.

“It’s not going to be competition because a bodega is different,” Albdo told me. “If they have the basics, it would probably be competition for that part of the business but not the rest.”

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