Food & Drink

A New Startup Could Render Your Favorite Late-Night Bodega Obsolete

The Latest Blow in Silicon Valley's War Against Human Messiness

By Sam Eichner ·
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Photo: Courtesy of Bodega via Quartz

Everyone has a bodega story. Or, rather, every bodega has played a part in a story, whether that involves a hungover sojourn for snack food sustenance, shameless pajama purchases, or swinging by at an ungodly hour to pick up a bottle of wine or a pack of cigarettes or a few condoms or all three, the combination of which is really the holy trinity of bodega buys. The 24-hour corner bodega is an intrinsic aspect of urban life, as necessary to the seamless functioning of a city as traffic lights, and trust me when I say I’m only being halfway hyperbolic.

Now, just like everything else that’s messy or inconvenient, it’s being phased out by a high-tech concept dreamt up in Silicon Valley. According to a lengthy feature in Fast Company today, two ex-Google employees are launching a new venture called, naturally, Bodega. From the article: “Bodega sets up five-foot-wide pantry boxes filled with non-perishable items you might pick up at a convenience store. An app will allow you to unlock the box and cameras powered with computer vision will register what you’ve picked up, automatically charging your credit card. The entire process happens without a person actually manning the ‘store.’” Furthermore, Bodega will use machine-learning to “constantly reassess the 100 most-needed items in the community” where it’s placed, thereby preempting people’s needs. Fifty of these boxes exist already on the West Coast; by next year, the founders hope to have a thousand in places like gyms, college dorms and office buildings. The profile, while healthily skeptical of the concept, seems to sound the death knell for those small mom-and-pop shops, “commonly run by people originally from Latin America or Asia.”

What to make of all this...

I’m certainly no luddite, and this does feel like a product that could take off. Had I had one of these boxes in my college dorm, I imagine life would’ve been about 14% easier (although, it still wouldn’t have solved the problem of my shitty fake ID).

But despite all their flaws, of which there are many, the brick-and-mortar bodegas of today have some redeeming qualities. No matter the ridiculousness of my purchases, I don’t recall ever being met with judgement. Rarely have I exchange words with the person behind the counter, even if I was a regular. And yet I always feel like they understand, with some resignation, to be sure, that sometimes I just really need some salami and a dusty bottle of cheap wine perched high up on a forgotten shelf.  That sometimes, we’re all kind of fucked up or disgusting, and that's okay. The bodega, as an institution, can be a real bastion of imperfection. In its own small way, it makes decrepitude a relatable condition, dignifying shamelessness as another byproduct of our humanity.

Can an app do that?

Sam Eichner likes literature, reality television and his twin cats equally. He has consistently been told he needs a shave since he started growing facial hair.

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