A word of warning to tech startups: New Yorkers love their bodegas — compete at your own risk.
Tech startup “Bodega” announced the official launch of its high-tech vending machines that are primed to disrupt brick-and-mortar bodega business with automatic-billing “pantry boxes,” according to the company’s website.
The startup describes its futuristic boxes as “small, automated stores … Take what you need and walk away. Bodegas learn what sells at each location and restock accordingly.”
A conceptual video on the company’s website shows a customer unlocking the box via smartphone, then simply taking a snack and leaving.
The backlash among some New Yorkers was immediate and intensely negative.
“That’s so insensitive. [A bodega] is a New York staple and for them to create it in a factory is ridiculous. I would not visit if they came here,” said Tammy Bove of Woodside, who prefers her 61st Street corner store.
Social media echoed that criticism with more colorful language.
“I would eat off the floor of the sketchiest bodega in NYC before I bought something from some tech — — cabinet,” wrote @StuckInTheIV on Twitter.
Another user, @Smooth_orator, wrote “The idea you can make a ‘Bodega box’ shows a fundamental misunderstanding of the purpose of a Bodega in the first place.”
Corner stores have been an integral part of city life for decades, and often function as neighborhood “water coolers.” Around the five boroughs, the U.S. Census Bureau reported more than 900 active convenience stores — with Queens leading at 286 — in 2015. Officials say the number of bodegas is likely much higher, considering there are approximately 6,500 grocers with four employees or fewer.
Han Seo has managed 33 Gourmet Deli in midtown for seven years and said he serves about 5,000 customers a day. While he acknowledges that change is inevitable, he doubts Bodega is actually a threat.
“Is it fast enough to get everything out to people fast?” Seo asked. “When people order coffee, we know immediately what they want.”
Al’s Deli manager Bobby Singh, at Seventh Avenue and 35th Street, agreed.
“If they want to try something, go ahead, but they’re not going to get that service,” Singh said.
That personal, familiar attention is among the many aspects that make New York City bodegas difficult to replace with automation. Kaylene Milano, 22, a veterinary technician from East Harlem, goes to the same bodega at 108th Street and Second Avenue three or four times a week.
“Bodegas are places where you find things cheaper than normal. It also feels more personal,” Milano said. “[A machine] would take from the experience.”
Despite the fierce loyalty for mom-and-pops, Bodega is not the first company to cut in on the action.
“In the last five years or so, bodegas have really been under attack from all sorts of new competitors. That includes the big drugstores that have been expanding,” said Jonathan Bowles, executive director of the Center for an Urban Future. “But I’m certainly not thrilled about [Bodega’s] name. It sounds like it’s adding insult to injury.”
A host of cameras in each box allegedly track customers’ actions and keep stock of what is removed in order to calculate the automatically generated bill.
Despite the company’s name and perceived mission, founder Paul McDonald denied any intention to put corner stores out of business.
“Challenging the urban corner store is not and has never been our goal,” McDonald wrote in a Medium post Wednesday afternoon amid a social media uproar. “We want to bring commerce to places where commerce currently doesn’t exist. Rather than take away jobs, we hope Bodega will help create them.”
Bodega already has installed more than 30 boxes in the San Francisco Bay Area, including a dozen in San Francisco proper, a couple in Oakland and few near the University of California, Berkeley, campus. The company’s founders, according to Fast Company, unveiled 50 new West Coast locations on Wednesday in addition to plans to open more than 1,000 nationwide by the end of 2018.
There are no known plans to invade New York City any time soon.