Yes! Organic Market pulls out of Southeast


Gary Cha has opened several locations of Yes! Organic Market, including the one he is now slated to close in the Fairlawn neighborhood across the Anacostia River. (Jahi Chikwendiu/WASHINGTON POST)

Yes! Organic Market, the local chain of small, organic grocery stores, plans to close its store on Pennsylvania Avenue SE in the District’s Fairlawn neighborhood later this year, a setback in efforts to expand food options in neighborhoods east of the Anacostia River.

When it opened in the fall of 2010, the store was hailed by the project’s developer and District officials as a badly needed source of healthy food east of the river, where there are only three full-service grocery stores but more than 140,000 residents.

But Gary Cha, owner of the store, said despite a $900,000 grant from the District and his best efforts to make a profit, the store was losing so much money that he would close it later this year.

Cha built his local chain by opening stores in Adams Morgan, Capitol Hill, Cleveland Park, Brookland, Petworth, Hyattsville and U Street and has never closed one. He blamed himself for choosing a location to open that was difficult to access, particularly for shoppers driving west on Pennsylvania Avenue from neighborhoods east of the river. The parking lot could not be legally accessed by either left turns or U-turns.

“It’s a difficult place to get in and out,” he said. “That was something that I couldn’t overcome. I wanted to be the first — well I guess I was the first — organic market east of the Anacostia River. We wanted to be the first to offer healthy foods across the Anacostia River. And I tried to do that the best that I could. But that location, the way it is located, is very hard to get to.”

Cha said he changed managers, hung new signage and offered Groupon specials to try to turn things around, but never had a profitable month. He said none of his other stores were facing similar issues. “All of our other stores are doing very well,” he said.

The developer of the building, Tim Chapman, said he was disappointed that Yes! would be closing. In better economic times, Chapman — an apartment developer — and Cha had plotted to pursue a number of residential-and-grocery projects in low-income neighborhoods.

That partnership has fizzled, but Chapman said he still believed that residents in the neighborhoods where he builds affordable housing are willing to pay for fresh produce and organic products. “I think the market is there for a high-quality grocery store to provide high quality food to that area, and I’m disappointed in Gary’s choice,” he said.

Chapman said he had not decided how he would replace the store yet, but had received interest from other retailers. “We will find an equal or better user for that space. We are not going to put a dollar store in there,” he said.

For the District, the closure of the store means the loss of the $900,000 grant that the city provided during Mayor Adrian M. Fenty’s administration to pay for the store’s build-out.

Jose Sousa, a spokesman for Victor L. Hoskins, D.C. deputy mayor for planning and economic development, said the District would continue to try to expand new food options for shoppers in neighborhoods east of the river. He said he expected that most of the workers from the store would be transferred to other Yes! locations.

“We’re still committed to obviously making sure that we locate grocery stores east of the river. That’s still very much a goal of ours,” Sousa said. “And we continue to use tools like the supermarket tax credit and restaurants and retail tours to show locations to prospective retailers all the time.”

Cha expressed disappointment.

“I think I let the people living east of the Anacostia down,” he said. “People who shop our store really like our store, and they really thank us, and they gave us energy to stay longer. But in the end there was just not enough of those people.”

Jonathan O'Connell has covered land use and development in the Washington area for more than five years.
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