As a socially conscious tech geek, it is always interesting to see how technology evolves in our society. We have seen self-service checkouts at supermarkets. You’ll see a campy video about a grocery store with kiosks on YouTube. Read an article a few years later about an implementation of disparate technologies creating an unmanned grocery store. Then a tweet pops up on your Twitter timeline which is analogous to over-engineering in our society and it rightly so receives backlash.
As a Dominican-American first generation male who worked in a family owned bodega in Inwood, New York City for some years, I got to see a variety of people and their struggles as they tried to integrate with American society. I personally would translate letters and explain to people their next steps and yes, helped people with their computer problems. It wasn’t all superficial though; I have seen success and failures. I have heard of heart-warming stories as businesses and churches helped newly arrived immigrants with money, food, and jobs to get them up on their feet. The marriages, the surprise pregnancies, the fiestas, the quinceañeras, the graduations, and sadly the arrests for drug sales and trafficking, and murder, and the suicides. Good or bad, I wouldn’t have had these experiences if not for working for my father at the bodega.
“Real bodegas are all about human relationships within a community, having someone you know greet you and make the sandwich you like.”
-Frank Garcia, NY State Hispanic Chamber of Commerce
The above quote from the Fast Company article is 100% right. I have come to believe that these businesses become the water coolers of the neighborhood. It seems that the start-up company, Bodega, was so interested in reducing friction and in automation that they totally disregarded the section of society they are disrupting and what it means to be a community. They are further isolating people and their surroundings at a time when understanding other people is so crucial. It is not the building, not the block, but the neighborhood. Self-sustaining resilient communities are the future and for a company like Bodega to succeed they have to account for the displacement they are creating. If they move forward as they are currently structured, they will have a Walmart effect on the communities they are serving.
I hope they reflect on their potential impact and pivot. Why not create a service that works alongside the existing infrastructure? Bodegas as they are currently structured have three employees: the cashier, which is usually the owner or someone the owner really trusts, the stockboy / sandwich maker, and the cat aka the host. Imagine where Bodega, the start-up, installed their camera powered computer vision system in these established locations that already have a trusted clientele and augmented the owners work flow and automatically reorder popular products from local distribution centers. Logistics aside, this seems a win-win to me, keeping the community vibe and gossip, allowing for the serving of coffee, for the making of food, and most importantly for the petting of the cat. I know, I would be more inclined to visit that than a vending machine without cat. 🐱