A ‘dirty shop’ in Ward 8 goes clean

November 20, 2012

(Mike DeBonis — The Washington Post)

Tuesday, thousands of Ward 8 residents lined up outside of Anacostia’s Union Temple Baptist Church to get a free turkey courtesy of D.C. Council member Marion Barry (D-Ward 8) and his shadowy corporate patrons.

Wednesday, hundreds more turkeys will be handed out to Ward 8 residents, and Barry can take credit for those, too, in a way.

A mile or so up Martin Luther King Avenue, in the Congress Heights neighborhood, corner shop owner Ephrame Kassaye will be handing out 450 turkeys starting at 2 p.m. It’s not the first time he’s handed out gratis Thanksgiving birds, but he’s handing out a record number this year to commemorate the reopening of his Mellon Market after a top-to-bottom renovation.

For the past two weeks, Kassaye has been rebuilding the convenience store he’s owned since 2008 from the bottom up — inspired in part, he said, by Barry’s primary-election-night comments critical of local business owners who run “dirty shops” and “ought to go.”

“He was right,” Kassaye said. “He knows Ward 8 better than anybody. Better than people in Bethesda or Georgetown.”

Barry, you’ll recall, was particularly critical of Asian business owners; Kassaye, for the record, is African — Eritrean, to be precise. After coming to America in 1999, he worked in a downtown hotel, drove a cab and dabbled in real estate before opening his store in 2008 in a vacant building at MLK Avenue and Mellon Street SE — one that had previously held Barry’s campaign office in 2004.

Kassaye, 36, stood inside the store Monday morning as workers rushed to ready the shop. Twenty-year-old coolers and freezers are gone, replaced by a new custom walk-in cooler, trimmed in stainless steel diamond plate. Wooden countertops are now premium granite, and a dingy vinyl floor is now porcelain tile, imported from Spain. There’s still Plexiglas around the counter, but it’s nice bright, clean Plexiglas instead of the dingy stuff. 

“This is like one of those Georgetown, Italian-restaurant type things,” Kassaye said, pointing to the floor tile. “Let’s have the best of the best in here.”

He picked it out, he said, after seeing photos of a Florida pizzeria owner giving President Barack Obama a bear hug in September. Kassaye called up the pizzeria in Fort Pierce, Fla., and asked the owner about his floors. “He told me the name of the floor is porcelain,” he said, and Kassaye appears to have found an exact match.

Kassaye found further inspiration during a recent trip to Disney World, where he had a roast beef sandwich that made a big impression on him. So soon he’ll have a deli in the back offering roast beef.

For the time being, though, he’s happy to be handing out Thanksgiving turkeys to the needy again. “It’s the Ward 8 community that made this happen,” Kassaye said. “If the community isn’t opening the door, who am I? I’m nobody.”

Barry, he said, will be coming to Wednesday’s ribbon-cutting.

Mike DeBonis covers local politics and government for The Washington Post. He also writes a blog and a political analysis column that runs on Fridays.
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Mike DeBonis · November 20, 2012