Walgreens in Chinatown offers everything from manicures to sushi


The grocery area of the Walgreens in downtown Washington. (Jeffrey MacMillan/For The Washington Post)

This, says Ilona Piaskowy, is not your grandmother’s drug store.

For starters, there is sushi (California rolls for $3.99) and champagne (bottles of Veuve Clicquot for $55.99).

“I walked in here and was like, ‘Wow, this is not the Midwestern Walgreens I’m used to,’” said Piaskowy, who works for the District-based Corporation for Public Broadcasting. “It’s basically another lunch place downtown.”

In the month since the District store opened, the Walgreens on 7th and H streets NW has amassed a cult following of sorts: Area workers and residents say they routinely stop by for coffee, lunch or a midday frozen yogurt. Others head straight to the cosmetics area for $12 manicures and $10 false eyelash applications.

“I’ve been here three times already this week,” said Katie Difede, a student at Catholic University. “I get all of my nail polish here. The selection is really good.”

Janet Sonera, who works across the street, said she likes the store’s freshly made foods and juices.

“For this, I come almost every day,” Sonera said, holding up a smoothie.

Some of the other items for sale: olives, broccoli florets, sliced mangoes, gluten-free cookie dough. Sausage cheddar quiche and creme brulee sell for $3.99 a pop. Even pre-made sandwiches have gotten an upgrade: chicken, apple and brie on a seven-grain baguette, and prosciutto, mozzarella and fig on cranberry ficelle.

“It’s convenient for grabbing breakfast or lunch,” said Kevin Chapman, who stopped in last week to buy a smoothie and roast beef sandwich. “Sometimes while I’m here, I’ll go upstairs and also get whatever hair care product I need.”

As the company’s seventh flagship location, executives say the 22,603-square-foot store — nearly double the size of a typical Walgreens — offers something else entirely: A testing ground for new ideas and innovation. It is one of the latest examples of the kind of tinkering retailers big and small are doing to customize stores for their particular communities.

“It has become a great playground for us,” said Beth Stiller, vice president of strategy and innovation for the Deerfield, Ill.-based company. “We think of it as an exaggeration of our strategy — it’s where we try all kinds of new offerings, new products, new services.”

When it’s clear that there is enough demand for a certain initiative — selling fruits and vegetables, say — the company finds way to roll out similar programs at all of its stores.

“Our flagships have shown us that even in over-served communities, there’s a role for us [to sell produce],” she said. “As we go back into stores and renovate and open new stores, we take a good, hard look at how much of those fresh offerings we can bring into those locations.”

Boutique feel

The inside of the store near Gallery Place is airy, with exposed brick and a painted ceiling that evokes the Sistine Chapel.

“It’s very high-end,” said Colleen Goldstein, who works in cosmetics. “Our customers come in and say ‘Oh my gosh, I feel like I’m in a department store or a specialty boutique.’”

The large brick building, once a CVS drugstore, has stood vacant for several years. In 2011, Douglas Development and McCaffery Interests acquired the property out of bankruptcy. Today, the building, which will also house a Panera Bread and Yo! Sushi, commands one of the highest rents per square foot in the District.

“The density around there makes it one of the top intersections in Washington, D.C.,” said Juan Cameron, a senior managing director at McCaffery Interests. “You’ve got a strong residential presence, a strong business presence, and you’ve got the Verizon Center and a Metro station down the street.”

Stiller said Walgreens, which posted $72 billion in revenue last year, has plans to open at least a few more flagship stores in 2013.

“Our goal is to make sure going to the drugstore is no longer a chore,” she said.

Abha Bhattarai covers local banking, retail and hospitality for The Washington Post’s Capital Business section.
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