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Tech Startup Wants to Kill The Friendly Neighborhood Bodega with a Vending Machine

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The company, called Bodega, is a lightning rod

Shwath Rajan, left, and Paul McDonald, right

Convenience stores aren’t convenient enough for the founders of a new tech startup called Bodega that’s already a lightning rod for commentary and criticism on Twitter. Backed by $2.5 million in venture capital, Bodega has installed 30 of its app-enabled, self-customizing, five-foot-wide pantries in the Bay Area so far, with locations from Crossfit gyms to Berkeley fraternities. But the startup’s name, concept, and even its “bodega cat” logo, modeled on the store-dwelling cats and popular meme, are getting an icy reception.

Bodega founder Paul McDonald, a longtime Google product manager, tells Fast Company he dreams of a day when “centralized shopping locations won’t be necessary, because there will be 100,000 Bodegas spread out, with one always 100 feet away from you.” Each Bodega is unlocked through a phone application, and customizes itself to stock non-perishable items specific to the needs of its nearby customers. Think toilet paper and Solo cups for fraternities, toothpaste and condoms for hotel lobbies, and toilet paper and Solo cups again for startups.

To skeptics, Bodega sounds like a ghoulish Silicon Valley parody, a concept only the socially averse or unaware could embrace. Particularly those with a soft spot for real bodegas, known locally as “corner stores,” consider McDonald’s dream scenario more dystopian than utopian — not least for their typically immigrant and mom-and-pop owners and workers. On Twitter, they’re reacting accordingly.

Even the company’s name can be seen as cruel displacement and appropriation rather than healthy disruption.“To me, it is offensive for people who are not Hispanic to use the name ‘bodega,’ to make a quick buck,” Frank Garcia, the chairman of the New York State Coalition of Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, tells Fast Company. “To compete with bodegas and also use the ‘bodega’ name is unbelievably disrespectful.”

But McDonald, whose cofounder is another ex-Googler named Ashwath Rajan, is unconcerned. He says the company administered surveys to Latin Americans to see if respondents took issue with the name, and found that 97 percent didn’t. “It’s a simple name and I think it works,” McDonald says.

Today, Bodega reveals 50 new locations for its gussied-up hotel room bars. Existing Bodegas can be found at expected locations in San Francisco such as newer luxury housing developments like the Millennium Tower and NEMA Apartments, or in the waiting rooms at the venture capital firms that backed the company.