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Solimar Research

Battle Brews over 'Bodega' and Bodegas

Josh Stephens on
Sep 26, 2017

A week or so ago, in less time than it takes to pop open a can of Pringles, the Internet fawned over and then recoiled against retail startup Bodega. Promising to do for potato chips what Uber did for transportation, Bodega intends to place what are essentially glorified vending machines all over, well, everywhere. The machines’ inventories will be customized according to location (train station; sorority; gym; tech startup office) so that inhabitants of our new, perfected cyber-world can acquire necessities without having to confront ugly realities of space and distance. 

For those among us who are truly that antisocial, agoraphobic, or overworked, I can’t imagine why this system is preferable to home delivery, but whatever. Bodega is making a go of it, crossing off yet another industry on the disruption hit list. 

How fast do things happen when you’re not constrained by things like public outreach, CEQA, city council meetings, and construction schedules? Very. On literally the same day that Bodega the company launched — that would be two days ago, Sept. 13 — Fast Company ran a comprehensive profile of the company, replete with praise and skepticism. By that afternoon, Eater ran an entire article, and then a follow-up, about the backlash against Bodega, calling it “Twitter’s least-favorite startup” and quoting Tweets making fun of its logo (a cat), questioning the ethnic sensitivity of its name, and saying that it should be called “Gentrification Box.” Ouch. 

Now that the world knows what Bodega is, residents of California can be forgiven for wondering what a bodega is. 

As anyone from an East Coast city knows, a bodega is a corner store. It’s the type of place that sells milk, chips, and ramen in single-serving cups. They are also the types of places where, depending on their selection of malt liquor, you can get panhandled or shaken down. They have neither the placemaking power of a local bar nor the culinary selection of a supermarket. But they’re nice parts of the urban fabric and often provide economic substance for individual entrepreneurs. And, since they’re generally located in dense neighborhoods, no one ever drives to a bodega. 

Fast Company notes that Bodega could present fatal competition for its namesakes: 

The major downside to this concept–should it take off–is that it would put a lot of mom-and-pop stores out of business. In fact, replacing that beloved institution seems explicit in the very name of McDonald’s venture, a Spanish term synonymous with the tiny stores that dot urban landscapes and are commonly run by people originally from Latin America or Asia. Some might bristle at the idea of a Silicon Valley executive appropriating the term “bodega” for a project that could well put lots of immigrants out of work.

While this prediction may be exaggerated, what it implies is that cities don’t need fewer bodegas. In fact, they need more of them — especially in California. 

Bodegas are essentially illegal in most neighborhoods in California. In California, separation of uses is next to godliness. Our residential neighborhoods, urban and suburban alike, can span dozens of square miles and require drives of many miles to get a quart of milk. And, yet, if anyone were to propose the addition of a corner store in these homogenous neighborhoods — to, you know, cut down on those drives and maybe give neighbors a place to run into each other — orthopedists would be overwhelmed for all the pearl-clutching. And don’t get me started on parking requirements. 

A bodega could easily prosper on my nearest corner, and on hundreds of others like it. I’m in the heart of a west Los Angeles neighborhood packed with mid-rise apartment buildings as far as the eye can see. There’s no earthly reason why one of those buildings can’t have a retail space on the ground floor. I can only imagine the number of car trips that would be eliminated if my neighbors and I could walk to a bodega rather than drive to the supermarket. And, I can only imagine what it would be like be to have a place to bump into neighbors that doesn’t include rear-ending them in rush-hour traffic.

My point here is, the question of whether or not this silly startup will “disrupt” the corner store industry is beside the point. Zoning regulations and our stunted notions of what constitutes a “proper” neighborhood have already prevented more bodegas from opening than will ever be run out of business by the likes of Bodega.

It’s telling that Eater jumped so quickly to criticize Bodega and to publicize those mean tweets. Eater is a restaurant blog. Its entire existence depends on people going out into the world and doing things — in their case, consuming food, alongside other people who are also consuming food. So they get rightfully jumpy when yet another cyber-something comes along that would compel people to stay at home and watch The Bachelor. (Restaurants themselves aren’t doing so well these days.)

Of course, Eater’s mission should be every planner’s mission: to promote and celebrate physical places where poeple can enjoy each other. I hope the current generation of planners will grab a can of Pringles — or whatever else they need to fuel up — and figure out ways to give bodegas a fighting chance. 

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