Another day, another instance of trying to profit from the labor and culture of people of color. Former Google employees, Paul McDonald and Ashwath Rajan, are formulating a (not so) innovative idea: putting pantries with non-perishable items into apartment building and college dormitories. Their “OMG, that’s so cool” company, aptly called Bodega, is supposed to replace vending machines and our beloved corner stores that give us sandwiches at any time of day, cheap groceries, and a cat to love. In our newest edition of Douchebag Decree, the Bitch crew—Soraya Membreno, director of community; Ashley Duchemin, production editor; Dahlia Grossman-Heinze, senior engagement editor; Evette Dionne, senior editor; and Lisa Factora-Borchers, editorial director—takes the creators of Bodega to task.
A lot of the criticism has been that white people, in particular, create these tech innovations to keep from interacting with people of color in their neighborhoods. How much truth is there to that criticism? Is this something you’ve seen in your communities?
Soraya: I think you can’t talk about these kinds of ‘convenience’ apps without talking about gentrification. Take Seamless, for example, which was founded in NYC. NYC is the capital of delivery. You can get anything delivered anywhere at any time usually without so much as a fee. That Seamless started here feels redundant until you zero in on the one aspect of delivery that the app eliminates: The phone call. And more specifically, the potentially awkward conversation with someone who might not speak English with the same accent or as clearly as the person ordering. That’s what Seamless was always about. Sterilizing the interaction for the (white) person living in a neighborhood where for the first time they aren’t a majority and don’t want to be bothered with engaging the world outside of their apartment. There are tons of mini organic supermarkets springing up alongside bodegas in NYC, but you don’t see anyone rushing to try to make those more “convenient.” The fact that most bodegas are run by people of color is not a coincidence.
Ashley: Though I’m currently living in Portland, I grew up deep in Brooklyn, New York, in one of the poorest, “most dangerous” neighborhoods. We rarely, if ever, saw white people in those spaces, and even going back to visit recently, that phenomenon hasn’t hit my neighborhood, but it’s close. I saw the beginning of that when I was in high school in Clinton Hill, and when I moved to Bushwick, just one neighborhood over from mine, on my own as a teen, and when I was in college in Harlem. Going back as an adult, those neighborhoods are unrecognizable. People like that are creating their own spaces and pushing those mom-and-pop stores out, and writing ridiculous Yelp reviews about their disgust with the local bodega cats—but then using it as a logo. They’re telling their (mainly white) friends to avoid “sketchy” areas, the areas most likely to have a bodega on every corner, and coming up with apps to assist in that. And they’re creating foodie videos about bodega foods, like chopped cheese (or “chop cheese”), and presenting it as though “most New Yorkers don’t even know about it.” New Yorkers do know about it, but those white people don’t. The ones who need this because they won’t step into a bodega to see the menu or interact with the people. (Now even Whole Foods has chopped cheeses.) So I definitely have seen it over the past decade as it has crept into the culture in New York City and morphed into something we’re forced to accept about who’s changing the demographic.
Dahlia: I’ve definitely noticed a reluctance on the part of white people to shopping at bodegas, especially in places where people are more used to relying on personal cars for transportation and can take themselves to Target instead of walking a few blocks to a local store.
Soraya: Oh my god, the Yelp reviews. My eyes can’t roll back far enough. Disclaimer: I lived in Brooklyn for five years in precisely one of those rapidly gentrifying neighborhoods as it was starting to happen (I’m sorry!) and the discomfort of the folks moving in was palpable.
Evette: I’m sure that’s the case. I’ve lived in my apartment building in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, for a year, and slowly, but surely, white people have begun trickling in. I see a new white person moving in nearly every day. There’s nothing wrong with that on the surface, but their presence starts to change the culture of the neighborhood. What’s interesting is that I’ve never seen any of my white neighbors in our bodega, but when I’m ordering UberEats (sorry, the prices can’t be beat), I see them receiving food as well. There’s just this complete refusal to interact with and understand the culture of the neighborhood they’re moving into. They want to impose their will on people who’ve lived in a community for decades, and this Bodega idea is just an extension of that.
Lisa: I’ve lived on both coasts, most recently the Bronx, but am now based in Columbus, Ohio. Gentrification in Ohio is unmistakeable, it just doesn’t make headlines the way larger cities do. I’ve lived in all three major cities in Ohio—Cincinnati, Cleveland, and now Columbus and I can attest: It’s all the same trend whether I’m looking at Kingsbridge in the Bronx or Over the Rhine in Cincinnati or Olde Town East here in Columbus—the opportunity to exploit land is seized aggressively by venture capitalists with thinly veiled ignorance of or contempt for communities of color.
Bodegas (also known as papi stores in Philadelphia and corner stores in other major cities) are often owned and operated by immigrants. How does that factor into this conversation about “Bodega?”
Ashley: Well, I think the main way it’s important to the conversation is that these bodegas are often within the neighborhoods that the owners and their families live in, or at least closeby, which means it’s an accessible livelihood that will be taken away from them. We’re already seeing immigrant families, and Black families, being priced out of the neighborhoods that they’ve not only been living in for decades, but that allow them access to go to work, in these stores and in the nearby cities, to go to school, to healthcare facilities, and so much more, and to be able to create affordable, safe, close-knit communities, even if the outside world doesn’t perceive it as such. This would be a huge step further in the displacement many immigrant families in major cities across the country have been experiencing. And honestly, it’s disappointing to see that one of the founders of “Bodega” (ugh) is Indian, when a number of bodegas in New York City are owned by Indian immigrant families, and they’re the ones he’d be putting out of business.
Soraya: By the way, Fast Company, people in LA do NOT call it a bodega. Get your facts straight!
Evette: Ashley, that’s a great point. A lot of bodegas are owned by immigrants who live in the communities their stores are in. They have a vested interest in providing good service to their neighbors. I absolutely love that the owner of my bodega cracks a smile every time I come in. He knows me by name. He calls me “darling.” There’s a familiarity to bodegas that are so critically important to creating community in big neighborhoods. Immigrants are crucial to the fabric of all cities, especially big cities like Los Angeles and New York. You can’t replace them. We build relationships and a sense of community with our bodega owners. A vending machine can’t recreate that experience, and thinking so is ridiculous and shameful.
Lisa: Immigrants in non-coastal places struggle similarly but differently. I think there’s a deep sense of isolation for immigrant families in the midwest, but there’s also those really amazing connections between immigrants and their one market that sells what they need. I’m a child of immigrants and growing up, there was one generic store, a tiny place called, “The Asian Market” in small town Ohio. There was no other place to go, but it was the place where my mom could rent Filipino movies and see images of the place she considered home. It was the only place that sold good brands of rice, not Uncle Ben’s brand. Places that are immigrant owned are sacred. And if you’re not an immigrant, there’s no pathway to comprehending that sanctity beyond economic profit.
The creators of Bodega “want to build a shopping experience that stands for convenience and ubiquity for people who don’t have easy access to a corner store.” With that mission, who do you believe their target consumer is?
Ashley: Without a doubt, their target audience is white millennial Silicon Valley types, and those living in suburban areas that don’t have access to bodegas. But even in the context of New York City, which they have specifically stated they are catering to—though that wouldn’t make sense with that mission in mind—that audience is still white millennials, and, to Soraya’s earlier point, those who don’t want to have to actually interact with the Black and Brown people in the neighborhoods they’re pricing out.
Soraya: I remain deeply skeptical about the pitch to “suburban folks” because, like Dahlia said, y’all got cars. This seems specifically built for apartment buildings. And not just any apartment building, ones with lobbies. AKA high-rises.
Ashley: What I mean about suburban folks is those Silicon Valley people living outside of the Bay, or Chicago or in Westchester and Upstate New York, who travel into those cities for work. They don’t want to have to interact with people in those cities, because they never have to do so in their own neighborhoods. So if they have these in the buildings in which they work or frequent that have been created specifically for them, they no longer have to do that. But I totally agree that this is catering to those in high-rises, and specifically makes me think about those fucking new condos cluttering the trains, especially around Queens Plaza on the 7 and the one that will replace Five Points.
Evette: You’re both spot on. It’s clear that Bodega isn’t for the Caribbean people who populate my neighborhood. They’re for those who can afford to use credit cards to purchase overpriced food. Bodega will require a credit card and a whole bunch of other personal information that many people are uncomfortable forking over. By design, Bodega is designed to exclude those who don’t have a lot of resources, which are often people of color, poor people, trans people—those who can afford a $3 sandwich at their local bodega.
Lisa: I think we all know when who the target audience is when the outcome is displacement for people of color.
There seems to be a bigger conversation here about how people with more resources and privilege, like the creators of Bodega, are “inspired” by the work of people of color—and then steal that work, e.g. Kooks Burritos. Is this just an extension of cultural appropriation?
Dahlia: The Bodega dudes said they did “surveys in the Latin American community to understand if they felt the name was a misappropriation of that term or had negative connotations, and 97% said ‘no.’” Really, Bodega dudes? Who are these people you surveyed?!? What was the sample size?!?
Ashley: It is definitely 100 percent cultural appropriation. I would love for them to go to the place in which these stores are actually called “bodegas,” aka New York City, and survey 100 people of color in those neighborhoods. They are not getting 97 out of 100 people of color saying they are unaffected by the name, or 97 out of 100 people of color who own these stores and whose families support each other with these stores saying, “Sure, make my livelihood obsolete.” And these types of ideas are always born out of so-called admiration and appreciation of the culture. If you actually appreciated a culture or an idea, you would respect and support it, not take it from the people you supposedly “admire” with a goal of putting them out of business.
Soraya: But also, guys, I would like to not lose sight of what it is they’re pitching here: IT’S A GIANT VENDING MACHINE. Newsflash to whoever is funding this “revolutionary” idea: Those already exist. If you’re a casual venture capitalist out there: I don’t want to tell you how to live your life but, is this really where you saw your future-self? The vending machine business?
Evette: As I always say, what do we expect from people whose ancestors are conquerors?
Do you think social media plays any part in stopping these ideas from coming into fruition? The blowback has been so intense. What impact, if any, will that have on Bodega?
Soraya: I’d like to think so. Even if social media doesn’t stop something from happening altogether it can, and I think often does, force companies to make adjustments they wouldn’t otherwise make or consult people they wouldn’t ordinarily bring to the table, and to do so quickly. But honestly, even if all social media pressure does is make them put their foot in their mouths for all to see, I’m good with that. Because it will affect their bottom line. People are understanding, more and more, the power of our dollars and our spending habits. If we could push Ivanka’s clothing line onto the sales rack, we can handle a giant vending machine.
Dahlia: I bet Bodega will keep going but they’ll pick a different name. Like VendLocker. Or CabinetPay. I’m just combining words, but I have $5 on them renaming to something like EasyBuy.
Evette: Oh God Dahlia, I hope not. I’ve seen social media end many, many, many things. I hope the collective backlash will force Bodega to close up shop and move forward. Leave us our fresh bacon, egg, and cheese sandwiches alone! I definitely need to buy a bacon, egg, and cheese tomorrow, and talk to the owner of my bodega.
Ashley: Another thing I would like to see change is them giving back the bodega cat. And I also think they might change the name, but they’ve been stubborn about it so far, like in their “apology” Medium post. I think people like them are becoming bolder, and as much as community and social media can bring about change, these Columbusers think they own these ideas. We recently saw that in Crown Heights with the bar with the decorative bullet holes and 40s of rose in brown bags. So many people came out to protest that, and circulated that on social media, and when it came down to a town hall, the white woman who owns the bar gave the nonapology of the century, telling residents she “had no ill intention” and she’s “sorry [she has] a sense of humor.” She also refused to cover them up, back peddling by saying she kept and showcased the holes because they were part of the “original integrity of the building,”and still, even after the town hall, planned to keep them. So while I appreciate that social media has allowed us to amplify and protest these types of things happening in our neighborhoods, I’m not convinced it will bring about too much change in this situation, especially considering that these are ex-Google employees. We’ll still have to be vigilant about making sure they keep these out of our cities. I know I’ll be keeping an eye on this.
Lisa: Capitalism is always ready and social media has unique opportunities to be a tool for folks who want to rise to the occasion and resist. There are many ways to push back and like Ashley said, it can’t just be online. Capitalism backs down only in the threat of economic loss. If social media can tap into that threat, things could happen. But only if it’s led offline.