Glut food store marks 40 lean years of cheap and funky

By Amanda Abrams
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, November 4, 2009

There's something about Glut, Mount Rainier's long-standing natural foods grocery, that leaves first-time visitors astonished. It's a cluttered shop, the kind of old-school health food store that has largely been replaced by bigger and shinier varieties. But that's not the surprising part.

What newcomers inevitably marvel over is the diversity of Glut's customers. On a given afternoon, the line waiting to check out is a genuine reflection of the racially mixed, middle-class community surrounding the store. The clientele includes blacks, whites and Latinos of all ages who are as likely to be wearing a uniform with their name on the breast as high heels or dreadlocks, and who make it difficult to maintain offhand stereotypes about who's in the market for items such as organic greens and soy milk.

Glut Food Co-op has always been countercultural. Established in 1969 by a couple of conscientious objectors to the Vietnam War, it started out as a buying collective with the aim of providing unprocessed food at low prices. In the early 1970s, Glut moved into a former grocery in Mount Rainier -- still its home -- and gradually morphed into a retail operation.

Since then, little has changed. It's still a worker-run collective, the oldest in the area, according to employees. That means it is managed jointly by its employees and lacks the typical boss-worker hierarchy. Glut is open to anyone, no membership required, and volunteers can work for store credit.

Glut's mission is still to provide "food for people, not for profit," making it an anachronism that's unlikely to be confused with Whole Foods. A sign in the window proclaims that "war is not the answer"; inside, unpacked boxes of overstock share space with for-sale products, and customers are expected to bag their own groceries.

The beets and green beans don't gleam with bright perfection, as in bigger stores. But on closer inspection, it's obvious that everything is fresh: Much, though not all, of the produce and prepared food comes from within a few hours' drive of Washington. All of the staples are there, plus some unusual items requested by shoppers: incense, an expansive selection of medicinal herbs and an assortment of the ginger drinks beloved by Caribbean immigrants.

Customers say they like Glut's personal, idiosyncratic style. Without a boss looking over their shoulders, employees can linger in conversation with shoppers and are forced to directly answer requests or complaints that arise. They're free to get involved in the community, too: When neighborhood kids perform at the dance studio across the street, for example, workers might amble over to take in the show.

It isn't exactly a family relationship, but it's not just business, either. In a town whose residents have a particularly strong sense of social and neighborhood consciousness, Glut is a key community gathering place. This weekend, that gathering will be larger than usual, at a big neighborhood party to celebrate the collective's 40th anniversary.

The climate of familiarity is one of the things Theodore Boyd, an Amtrak conductor who was recently waiting in line to buy a bean pie, likes about the store. Gesturing at the bulletin board by the door and the scuffed wood floors, he said: "I like the 'nothing fancy' atmosphere here. It's like a store in the Midwest." Plus, he added, "I'm a tea guy, and this is one of the only places where I can get my teas."

Eileen Simmons, a frequent customer who lives in nearby Cheverly, said Glut reminds her of country stores in North Carolina, where her mother is from. "And I appreciate that they give the customer the discount."

Indeed, Glut is a not-for-profit business. That means its markup on bulk tamari, roasted almonds, organic apples and everything else is as low as it can be while still covering salaries and operating costs. But though some items, such as cheese and dried herbs, are particularly cheap, most of Glut's prices are on par with those at larger stores.

"We try and be competitive, but it's an economy of scale with natural foods," said Chris Doyle, at 62 the store's longest-serving employee. "You have to be a big store to make money."

A couple of years ago, Glut began to feel the impact of declining sales and increasing expenses. Rather than sharply raise prices and alienate customers, employees cut their own salaries and benefits. In April, finances stabilized and salaries went back up ("to the same level as they were in 1996," Doyle ruefully quipped). But the store isn't totally in the clear. "Oh, folks are absolutely spending less," Doyle said. "They're more careful about everything now."

Glut's commitment to the community isn't lost on shoppers. On her way out the door with a box of produce and grains to last the week, Ayo Ngozi mused about why she shops there. "I love the staff: that they listen when we ask for something, that they're part of the fabric of the neighborhood," she said. "When I was out of work, I volunteered here every week and fed myself and my family that way."

Glut Food Co-op

4005 34th St., Mount Rainier

Glut will celebrate its 40th anniversary Saturday, rain or shine, with a block party from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. in front of the store, at Bunker Hill Road and 34th Street. The event will include a potluck picnic at noon; attendees are encouraged to bring a vegetarian or vegan dish to share.

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