Ex-Googlers’ ‘Bro-dega’ startup slammed for going after mom-and-pop corner stores

If two former Google employees succeed in their new enterprise, they’ll put mom-and-pop stores across the US out of business. 

For their efforts to disrupt the corner store market, Ashwath Rajan and Paul McDonald are now undergoing public excoriation. 

The pair on Sept 13 launched “Bodega,” named after what people on the East Coast call the local corner stores that sell foods, drinks and everyday items. 

Described by Fast Company as “glorified vending machines,” the Bodega systems are essentially large cabinets stocked with goods that customers can access and pay for via a phone app and the systems’ computer vision capabilities. 

Bodega has reportedly raised US$2.5mil (RM10.51mil) in funding. 

Rajan and McDonald have been running beta tests of the concept at 30 spots in the Bay Area, including apartment lobbies, dorms, offices and gyms, the magazine reported. On launch day they were to open 50 locations on the West Coast, and soon after to expand across the nation – they’re shooting for more than 1,000 by the end of 2018. 

Beyond that? McDonald has big plans for America. “There will be 100,000 Bodegas spread out, with one always 100 feet away from you,” he told the magazine, which referred to the business humorously as “Bro-dega.” 

However, many bodegas are mom-and-pop operations, and Rajan and McDonald are taking harsh flak over their move to out-convenience the convenience stores. 

After tweeting out the Fast Company story with a dismissive profanity attached, New York magazine editor Jessica Roy followed up: 

“My bodega owners are yemeni immigrants and the bodega not only affords them a life in new york but also allows them to send money back home,” Roy tweeted. 

Several people noted that the startup takes as its logo the cat, a feature of many authentic bodegas that will be absent from the ex-Googlers’ high-tech version. 

“Trying to destroy bodegas with a startup called ‘Bodega’ that has a bodega cat logo is… just awful,” tech entrepreneur Anil Dash tweeted. 

Helen Rosner, executive editor of food-news site Eater, was not optimistic about the startup’s future. 

“Bodega is morally & culturally bankrupt but, heyo free-market fetishists, it’ll pretty soon be a literally bankrupt one, too,” Rosner tweeted. 

Black Girls Code founder Kimberly Bryant connected the controversy to economic development. 

“Bodegas and mom and pop stores are vital contributors to the small business economy in most urban areas,” she tweeted. 

“Additionally it irks me that this ‘solution’ may tend to create even more disconnected citizens in these urban environments,” Bryant added. 

Other commenters espoused violence as a response to the startup. 

The new enterprise was not universally condemned, however. Benedict Evans, a partner in famed VC firm Andreessen Horowitz, suggested in a couple of tweets that Bodega may fill a market gap in some regions. 

“A lot of people (not least in Silicon Valley) both live and work in places without walkable retail,” Evans tweeted, then in response to comments, he added, “If you address people with no access to that industry, you’re not replacing it.” 

Writer and policy analyst Daniel Hertz pointed to another threat to the traditional bodega. 

“Seeing all these tweets about the bodega killers,” he tweeted, “zoning has killed more bodegas than any Googlers could possibly hope to.” 

Later on Sept 12, McDonald took to the company blog to deny that the startup was aimed at blowing actual bodegas out of the marketplace. 

“Are we trying to put corner stores out of business?” McDonald asked rhetorically. “Definitely not. Challenging the urban corner store is not and has never been our goal. 

“Corner stores have been fixtures of their neighbourhoods for generations. They stock thousands of items, far more than we could ever fit on a few shelves.” — San Jose Mercury News/Tribune News Service