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‘Bodega’ startup wants to reinvent the convenience store

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With an internet-connected pantry box

A bodega cat in Brooklyn, NY.
A bodega cat in Brooklyn, NY.
Photo by Michael Tapp/Flickr

A bodega, or small convenience store, can mean many things to an urban community: a beacon of security on late nights, a place to get last-minute laundry quarters or that emergency breakfast sandwich, a familiar face.

But if Silicon Valley were to have its way, a “bodega” would be a five-foot-wide pantry box, a glorified vending machine hooked up with 2017 “conveniences” of app-controlled access, automated transactions, and a machine-learning-optimized inventory—no human interaction required. That’s the idea behind new startup Bodega (which has also co-opted the ubiquitous and beloved “bodega cat” for a logo.)

Bodega boxes are already up and running at 30 locations around the San Francisco Bay Area, offering a selection of non-perishables tailored to the the space—snacks and beverages at offices, detergent and medicine in apartment buildings, for example.

And with a fresh round of $2.5 million in funding, it wants to go national, starting with 50 new locations on the West Coast and eventually expanding to more than 1,000 locations by the end of 2018.

Can these boxes really replace the true bodegas people depend on? Curbed NY editor Amy Plitt is not convinced, arguing that real bodegas are not only “essential neighborhood hubs” but also serve—via cash transactions—folks who don’t have a smartphone or even credit card.

Twitter is also ablaze with reactions, with many there calling attention to what is lost or overlooked in this pursuit of “efficiency.”

“The vision here is much bigger than the box itself,” Paul McDonald, a Bodega co-founder and former Google product manager told Fast Company. “Eventually, centralized shopping locations won’t be necessary, because there will be 100,000 Bodegas spread out, with one always 100 feet away from you.”

This vision no doubt seems to go after traditional convenience stores, but Bodega also thinks its product could help out another corner of retail that’s been struggling in the age of e-commerce: large brick-and-mortar stores. McDonald speaks of potentially partnering with retailers to offer specific products where they’re needed the most—think Home Depot boxes at construction sites or Staples boxes in offices.

Indeed, Bodega is just the latest in a sea of changes at the intersection of technology, retail, and cities. For one, as cities race to figure out how to save their small businesses, e-commerce giant Amazon continues to expand its brick-and-mortar presence, opening bookstores, buying up Whole Foods—IRL Amazon furniture stores could even be on the way. Meanwhile, Apple just announced at its latest iPhone event that its stores would now be called “Town Squares,” reimagined as “gathering places” for building “communities.” What’s next?