With a VIP gala opening, Georgetown's Social Safeway is back on the market

By Lisa Rein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 6, 2010; C10

Washington, meet the Socialtini.

The new signature martini debuted before Georgetown glitterati Wednesday night at an exclusive VIP gala awash in stiletto heels and Dom Perignon. A Belvedere vodka fountain and brie were flown in from Paris. A white-jacketed sommelier dashed among 10 wine bars pouring Louis Roederer Cristal and Robert Mondavi Reserve to show off the host's 2,500-bottle, climate-controlled cellar.

The assistant White House chef, Sam Kass, ladled out cool cucumber avocado soup and white bean toast with fresh herbs. Vice president Al Gore's social secretary, Philip Dufour, now an event planner, stood at the door greeting people as they arrived in limo after limo. The 650 guests -- a who's who of U.S. senators and representatives, lobbyists, television commentators and publishing executives -- mingled in sequined ball gowns, black cocktail dresses and linen suits.

In the produce section.

The Social Safeway is back! After a year of remodeling, during which the city's elite had to buy their artisan breads and imported olives at Whole Foods, Trader Joe's, Giant and Dean & DeLuca, one of the District's most famous supermarkets is roomier, greener, foodier.

The company saw fit to throw a red-carpet celebration worthy of a state dinner, with a publicity budget that apparently rivals that of "Avatar." Glossy silver tri-fold invitations went out to 2,000 Important People. After all, this is the District's first 24-hour full-service grocery.

"We'd like to think we can have this become a bit of a tourist destination," says Craig M. Muckle, a Safeway public affairs manager, with a straight face. A must stop for visitors from, say, Fort Wayne, Ind.? "They've got to come see it," he beams.

Rep. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) was an early arrival with his wife, Abby. "Wow!" the congressman said. "I like the food business. If I travel anywhere in the world, I usually take a walk through the grocery store."

The Rev. Stuart Kenworthy sipped a Socialtini as he recalled the travails of the past year: grocery shopping without his neighborhood Safeway. He went to Whole Foods looking for Frosted Flakes until one of his Christ Church Georgetown parishioners told him the box with the tiger was not sold there. "I'm so glad the Safeway is back," he said.

CBS News's Rita Braver and Bill Plante came, as did D.C. Council member Jack Evans (D-Ward 2) and Ed Gillespie, former chief of staff for president George W. Bush.

The chatter was unmistakably Washington -- the midterms, high-speed rail, charity work -- as members of the Eric Felten Jazz Orchestra played Sinatra songs over by the rotisserie chicken.

Yes, we're talking about a supermarket, where you buy Bounty and bananas. But the new Social Safeway is so much more.

Since the '70s, Washingtonians have dubbed this see-and-be-seen landmark the chain's most social store, where singles on the prowl could pick up each other along with their Belgian endive.

Marriages have been made here: Political consultant Greg Lane picked up his future wife, Amy, by the meat case 10 years ago as he scribbled down Emeril Lagasse's recipe for Cajun chicken cacciatore. Dick and Lynne Cheney, Nancy Kissinger, Condi Rice and Jordan's King Abdullah have been spotted in the aisles.

But really, could respectable romance continue to bloom in a windowless one-story brick lump set behind a moat of parking at 1855 Wisconsin Ave. NW? Could hearts beat as one while pools of stormwater collect on the asphalt before washing into the Potomac River? While energy-wasting fluorescent lights glared on the arugula? No. The lump and all its enviro-inertia had to go.

Now most of the parking's underground. Shoppers can canoodle curbside at the pedestrian-friendly sidewalk entrance and stop for a pedicure on the same trip in a gleaming two-story temple of eco-sensitivity. One less car trip, one less gust of carbon dioxide.

This new Social Safeway -- at 71,067 square feet, the biggest and highest-grossing mid-Atlantic store in the chain -- has sunshade screens to allow cool breezes to flow through the aisles. The outside lights are so muted, the good citizens of Georgetown won't know it's there. A surface lot's back wall is an extension of Dumbarton Oaks, all foliage and flora in a green screen. And cooling the frozen eclair cases? No CFC refrigerants here. The cooling system is greener than the broccoli.

Did we mention that unsold produce and other store waste will be composted? Now that's sustainable (of course, Whole Foods does that). Over in the Haagen-Dazs aisle, the freezer cases light up only when the fog-treated doors open. (Take that, Whole Foods.) There's an open-flame hearth oven in the adjoining Starbucks. Flat-screen, high-def TVs are hung throughout, in case CNN commentators want to see themselves from the checkout lane.

No recession guilt is needed here. The Social Safeway may sell $498 bottles of Chateau LaFite Rothschild, but this is not Citronelle. It's just the neighborhood supermarket.

Nor is this the Soviet Safeway off Dupont Circle (so-called for its spare offerings before a remodeling -- the name stuck, however unfairly), the Shoot-'Em-Up Safeway on Capitol Hill (left over from when the neighborhood was crime-plagued), the Senior Safeway at the Watergate (self-explanatory) or even the Sexy Safeway in Mount Vernon Square (the shoppers are young, the neighborhood hot). And it definitely is not your Southwest Safeway, which, until the new Social Safeway opened at 8 a.m. Thursday, had enjoyed for 21 short days an exalted status as the company's "most modern store to date."

You may have missed its opening. Mayor Adrian M. Fenty was there shaking hands with shoppers and posing for photos, but there was no Belvedere vodka fountain.

Not all Safeways are created equally. Nor are they opened equally.

Southwest shoppers had made do for years with long checkout lines, wilted produce, empty bread and milk shelves and stepped-up security, and until last month, the place looked pretty much as it did when it opened in 1980. (This is Georgetown's fourth renovation.)

This was the reality in one of Washington's most forgotten corners, a mix of public housing and drab 1960s-era apartment buildings. When Safeway closed the old store for 12 days to move to the new one next door, bereft shoppers in need of provisions had to trek to the other side of the Southwest Freeway.

The Southwest Safeway got a "full replacement" just like Georgetown's, although it's smaller, at 54,134 square feet, and there is no sommelier or gelato bar. At its opening party April 14, 50 guests and customers were treated to pineapple chunks, cheese and crackers, pepperoni pizza and wine. The Ginny Carr Trio from Fairfax County played jazz. Sea beans and watermelon radish chilled in the produce section. The biggest green features were the bountiful fresh vegetables.

The day of the debut, balloons adorned the store, and a dozen red roses went for $9.99. "Hello! Thank you for coming to our store!" a smiling woman said from behind the bread counter, one of 40 locals hired for new jobs there. Shoppers in street clothes snapped up fried chicken wings, and the staff handed out the weekly circular, featuring pork loin chops for $1.49 a pound and gala apples for 77 cents.

For the neighborhood folks, it was nothing short of a miracle.

"Thank you, thank you, Mayor Fenty!" a grateful woman exclaimed as he stood sampling at the deli case. It was as if he had built the store.

"For so long we didn't have a Safeway that was first-flight," said Andy Litsky, an advisory neighborhood commissioner, caressing a baby purple artichoke. "But we do now."

At noon, a cleaning woman wheeled her bucket into the women's bathroom and started mopping the still-spotless tile floor, her third round since 8 a.m.

So where were the 10 wine bars, the sommelier, as planned for Georgetown?

Said Tim Baker, Safeway's vice president of real estate: "This is an opening. That's a celebration."

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