Sunday, November 6, 2011

In DC's West End, don't even think about using coupons.

Looking for that 'refined' neighborhood, free from the 'grossness' of America's big-name food companies? Need to be hip? Don't even want to see a non-'hip' grocery store in your neighborhood? You've got good company in DC's West End. Not even New York could compete. We'll bet you that even in the poshest neighborhood, you'll come across a food store that sells name-brand products. Not in the West End.

Word came through the grape vine that the 'regular' grocery store in my West End-Foggy Bottom neighborhood is closing. The Watergate Safeway, as it is known, saw little competition until 2006, when Trader Joe's opened 5 blocks away with a $1million deal sweetener from the neighborhood association (it was clear in the mind of community leaders that Safeway was slacking on performance). Well, this Trader Joe's instantaneously became the highest-grossing outlet on the East Coast (see the discussion on the link). Now Whole Foods has opened up in the neighborhood as well. Can the neighborhood support three supermarkets? Maybe-- if Safeway would have stepped up its game. Bare shelves were a frequent occurence, and the store format is often described as "odd" or "peculiar"-- check the Yelp page. It's been described as "straight from the '60's". I wasn't there, so I wouldn't know.

From what I understand, the store still turned a profit. The main reason for Safeway bailing is that the owner of the property wants a 20 year lease renewal. Next is the corporate strategy of consolidation: the chain opened a rebuilt store of its "urban" design (swanky lighting and higher prices), located a 10 minute drive uptown. That store, known as the "social safeway", performed better as the suburban design it was. Nevertheless, it seems as if the chain assumes that most customers drive to the store, and would drive to the new store (In fact, most arrive on foot, and according to city stats, over half of the residents in the neighborhood don't have cars). Furthermore, Safeway in the DC area has taken a new face as a property developer. A number of outlets are being redeveloped with condominiums or apartment placed on top of the store. Watergate, with the complex already built up, did not fit that model.

Given the way that this store's economic model was shaken in the past five years, I would have shaky hands if I had to sign that lease renewal.

1500 people signed a petition to "save" the store, but it's business first. Despite its faults, this Safeway did supply some of the regular groceries people are used to seeing: marshmallow fluff, 5 pound bags of sugar, and national brands. Betty Crocker? Pillsbury? Yoplait? No more in my neighborhood.