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Honor system is reported at unmanned Tenleytown Safeway

By Marc Fisher and Brigid Schulte
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, February 11, 2010; A09

Outside, whiteout. Inside the Safeway in Tenleytown, the aisles were empty, the salad fixings gone, the milk shelves cleaned out. The only evidence of what had happened sat on the cashier's belt in Lane 2 -- a few coins and a couple of wrinkled bills that told the tale: The staff skipped out and left the door open, and the locals, trying to do the right thing (sort of), had helped themselves and paid for what they took.

Three D.C. police cruisers were parked outside by early Wednesday afternoon, and the officers weren't happy. "Closed!" Officer J.B. Cook said. "They're not going to open -- go home!"

But another officer, who declined to give his name, told the story as best he could figure it out: "The people who work here probably left, and they left the store open by mistake."

Somehow, word got around to a few desperate shoppers, who made it over to the abandoned supermarket on Davenport Street NW and found something of value on shelves that had been nearly emptied by waves of snow-weary customers in recent days. Two witnesses told The Washington Post that they had been inside the store and seen people selecting goods and paying at unmanned cashier counters before leaving.

"People were getting groceries and leaving the money on the counter," Hilary Peterson said.

"The lot had been plowed, the lights were on, the PA system was operating, but there was no one working there," said shopper Frank Swain, who drove over in search of milk. "It felt like a movie set."

Swain said he would have taken and "left a couple of bucks for milk, but it was all gone," so he just left, but he watched as a couple with their dogs selected a variety of groceries and left payment for them.

Swain found milk at an open Safeway in Bethesda.

A Post reporter was able to enter the Tenleytown store, where the police stopped him. He saw the money, confirming accounts by witnesses and the police. Police said they were having trouble finding anyone from the supermarket chain to secure the building about 1 p.m.

Safeway spokesman Craig M. Muckle said a member of Safeway's security staff got to the store shortly after 2 p.m. Muckle said the security staff member told him that all four doors were locked and that nothing appeared out of the ordinary.

"Nothing was actually taken," Muckle said. "And there was no money left on the counter."

Muckle said company officials had yet to learn the full story from another Safeway employee, one who showed up for work at the store Wednesday morning.

The employee, Muckle said, got to work early and then, when it was clear that no other employees had made it in, closed up and left between 9:30 and 10 a.m.

Initially, Muckle said that the employee may have inadvertently left a customer in the store when locking up. The customer may have gotten out through an emergency exit, leaving a door unlocked.

But once the security staffer arrived and found all four doors locked, Muckle said that scenario would have been impossible. "We're still not able to reach the employee," he said. "We're concerned for his welfare."

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