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A Pioneer in Natural Foods Closes Shop

(Susan Biddle - Twp)
By Tara Bahrampour
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 16, 2007

In 1977, when Peggy Kleysteuber moved her health food store from Pitt Street to a spot farther west, near King and Payne streets, the strip where she arrived was a treeless no-man's land.

"This was not Old Town at the time," she said one recent day. "This [area] was pretty bad. . . . My customers from Old Town wouldn't come up here."

Old Town extends now from the riverfront to the King Street Metro station roughly 20 blocks away. But as high-end restaurants, boutiques and real-estate agencies have moved in, Kleysteuber's natural foods store, Cash Grocer, has fallen victim to the success of the area -- as well as a boom in the market for organic and natural products, which once were hard to find.

The store at 1315 King St., unknown to some, beloved by others, sells items such as loose Kukicha twig tea, freeze-dried kefir, four kinds of seaweed in bulk and home kits to test your blood type. But after Saturday, it will be gone, driven out by rising property assessments and competition from bigger businesses.

In the past two years, Cash Grocer's business has decreased by 50 percent, which Kleysteuber attributes in part to the rise of discount stores and regular markets selling more vitamins and health food.

"I used to do really well here," Kleysteuber said, sitting in a back office crammed with decades worth of files and papers. "It was so exciting as all these new soy products came out, so exciting. And then it became so popular that then, the big money comes in, and it's been Wal-Mart-ized."

Perhaps the biggest blow was the arrival last year of a Whole Foods Market a few blocks away on Duke Street. "Whole Foods coming in affected any business that has anything to do with food," she said.

Concerns about competition in the natural-foods business are national in scope. The Federal Trade Commission, citing antitrust law, is seeking to block a merger of Whole Foods Market Inc., based in Austin, and Wild Oats Markets Inc., based in Boulder, Colo., as small stores such as Cash Grocer that were once pioneers struggle to stay afloat.

"These type of health food stores are going by the wayside," said Karl Sizemore, one of Kleysteuber's three employees. "And with no disrespect to the big international conglomerates, they're not fine-tuned to the people."

Now it is Cash Grocer's turn. One morning last week, as Beatles songs played on the stereo, some customers lingered to chat, peruse the discounted stock or get last-minute advice on vitamins and herbal supplements.

Some signed a guestbook, adding comments such as "Hope you write a book for us to consult while you're off relaxing!" and "You guys are irreplaceable! Please come back!"

"I'm kind of sad," said Paula Wagenfeld of Woodbridge, who was filling a basket with wheat-free cookies. "It's hard to find wheat-free. And this place has a nice charm to it."

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