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Grocery store openings boost underserved communities in D.C. region

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George Davis of Northeast Washington treks to Prince George’s County once a week to shop for groceries in District Heights. And at least once a month, James Royster, looking for discounts, gathers a group of seniors in his Southeast neighborhood to drive to another store in Oxon Hill.

But on Thursday morning, the men were among a throng of residents who stood outside a recently built Aldi store in Northeast, waiting for city and Aldi officials to cut the ribbon on the company’s first market in the District.

Davis said he is looking forward to having affordable groceries within walking distance.

“I’ve been praying that they’d bring a store like Aldi’s or Wal-Mart to this neighborhood because that’s where we spend our money,” Davis said. “The stores where consumers spend most of their money is outside of D.C. This is going to improve everything in the neighborhood.”

City officials said having a branch of Aldi, which is known for low prices, will help meet several needs.

“We’ve had a problem in some areas with food deserts,” said Harry Thomas Jr. (D-Ward 5), referring to neighborhoods where there is little access to healthy food for low- and moderate-income families. “Look out that window and you see the Capitol, and yet in the shadow of the Capitol there are communities, African American communities, that are in need. And healthy food options are one of those needs.”

The store opening comes as three other markets are scheduled to open in poorer, inside-the-Beltway communities in Prince George’s in the next several months. Aldi plans to open two stores in Landover and Camp Springs and an independent grocer, Evergreen, is slated to open before Thanksgiving in a store vacated by Safeway in Temple Hills.

Andrew Harig, director of government relations at the Food Marketing Institute trade group, said the new stores in underserved communities are part of a growing trend.

“This has been on the industry’s radar for over a decade,” he said.

Harig said there are two reasons for the growth: need and competition.

“You hear the stories about people who live in inner cities and rural areas having to travel to shop,” he said. “And then in the last five years, the industry has gotten more competitive with big-box stores like Costco and Sam’s, and with convenience stores and drugstores selling groceries.”

He said supermarkets that are moving into underserved communities are finding creative ways to address issues that discouraged them from locating there in the past, including smaller building footprints and offering fewer brands.

Prince George’s officials recently visited the Temple Hills store as part of an economic development tour of new businesses in the county. Evergreen, whose owners once worked for Food Bazaar in New York, plans to hire 60 employees, replacing the 40 or 50 who were employed by Safeway. It will be the company’s first store.

Craig Muckle, a spokesman for Safeway, said the company decided to leave the location after assessing that the “business was not there” to justify renewing a lease for 20 to 25 years.

But residents said Safeway’s departure created a void.

“We had quite a few people who had to take a taxi or drive to the Giant” several miles away, said Earle A. Gumbs, a community activist who fought for a full-service grocer that sells seafood and produce to replace the Safeway at the Hillcrest Heights Shopping Center.

At Aldi, Cynthia Kinard marveled as she made her way through the store to food-tasting stations that offered small plastic cups of fruit salad, celery sticks with veggie dip and pepperoni with small chunks of cheese.

“It’s just so nice; it’s well organized and clean,” said Kinard, who lives within walking distance. “It seems like a store I’d like to . . . shop in.”

Jeff Baehr, vice president for the Frederick division of Aldi, said the company, which has 1,100 stores in 31 states, has been eyeing the District for several years. Aldi is an international company with stores in Europe and Australia.

“We’ve been opening around D.C. since 1998,” Baehr said, noting the company’s two stores in Montgomery County and six in Prince George’s.

Baehr said Aldi runs Zip code analyses and knew that many of its Prince George’s customers were District residents, like Davis and Royster.

Sylvia Matthews, who has never shopped at Aldi, left Thursday’s open house impressed.

“I’m pleasantly surprised by some of the prices,” she said. “The only big thing for me is that this is a non-union store. But I guess if they serve the community well, that’s all that matters, especially in this economy, when people need to stretch their dollars.”

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