It's not enough for his customers to patronize him, said Capitol Hill grocer George Shelton. He wants them to love him.
"We hope customers feel we're not only supplying their foodstuff, but are their friends," said Shelton, who opened Shelton's Market Basket last December in an abandoned supermarket at 12th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue SE.
It's too early to tell whether Shelton may succeed in the tough job ahead of him - trying to break into a market heavily dominated by supermarket chains as an independent grocer.
But he does seem to have won a wide measure of customer acceptance in a neighborhood where complaints about food stores (three Safeways and an A&P that left behind the building where Shelton is now) have been a longtime lament.
He has done it, he said, by some old fashioned techniques. He tries to keep prices down, to supply customers with what they ask for, to run a clean and pleasant store and to take the extra steps that make friends out of customers.
"I like it," said D.C. school board member Betty Kane, who lives nearby. "I like a store where the owner is there. Mr. Shelton is right on the scene. In fact, he carried the groceries out to our car because no one else was there to do it. There's that personal touch."
"It's always clean. The people are always courteous, and the store is really well stocked," said Sandra Jowers, who lives at 9th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue.
"I think the people in the neighborhood recognize that we want to be here," said Shelton. Several neighborhood residents wanted Shelton to be there too, he said, to provide an alternative to existing grovery stores.
With their help, and his own persistence, he was able to find financing for the venture from the Bank of Columbia, and a 90 per cent mortgage guaarantee from the Small Business Administration. "The Hill is a friendly neighborhood with numerous congressional contacts," said Shelton. "They were instrumental in getting my loan processed through SBA in about nine months, and that was a miracle."
Within 30 days of getting the financing completed, Shelton opened the store on Dec. 8. "We got our first case of groceries the day we were laying the tile floor," he said. The store, which the A&P gave up for lack of profitability, had been closed for about nine months when it was reborn as Shelton's.
Now in operation for almost 8 months, the store still has a somewhat incomplete look. Only recently did Shelton win city approval for a large sign to go outside the store. Without one, it was hard to recognize from the street.
The aisles are wide and the shelves eclectically stocked.Besides the greens and sweet potatoes found in every produce department on the Hill, there are also shallot, watercress, mangoes and bean sprouts.
Sheltons office is unairconditioned, concrete floored and unadorned. His desk is a plywood table. On the bookshelves across from the desk, "Roots" is stuck next to a book calle "The Management of the Market Function." Hegel is near "Food Distribution" and other industry books. Shelton now is reading something called "Surefail," about why businesses fail.
"I made up my mind to scrounge out an hour a day down here to read," he said. "I used to, as a hobby, indulge in various philosophical discussions about why we are what we are. It all comes down to, "What the hell!'" he said.
So far the grocery has meant long hours, hard work and no profits yet for Shelton. "It's going to be a while before it breaks into the black," he said. "It takes a miracle to get into profit in less than a year."
Shelton would eventually like to own several groceries in Washington. "My goal was to open a second operation in 18 to 24 months," he said. "I don't know if I can."
Shelton will not say what he is paying himself, but he said that he took about a 75 per cent pay cut to become his won boss. Shelton spent years working for Kroger Food Stores in this area and others and then worked as a consultant to the Big V Food Stores in the Washington area.
"I discovered that nobody likes a missionary. The consensus is, 'If you're so smart, why don't you run your own?'" he said.
Shelton lives in Columbia, Md. He arrives at 5 a.m. at a market nearby in Maryland to pick up the day's produce and delivers it to the store's loading dock about 7 a.m., he said. The store is open until 9 o'clock every night except Sunday, when the store is open until 6 p.m.
"I'm here all the time. I always operate under the philosophy that I should be totally available to my customers," he said. Although Shelton is not antagonistic toward the large supermarket chains - where he learned the business - he has evolved his own style of grocering: "I've tried to build the business on friendliness and service and not be uncompetitive in an industry trained to be efficient at the expense of courtesy and service."
Breaking into a market totally dominated by the chains is not easy, he said. The most recent figures available from the federal government show that about 76 per cent of the dollars spent for groceries in this area go to four major chain stores.
I'm surrounded by Safeway," said Shelton. "One of the things I'm up against is that everyone in town, when they think groceries, thinks Safeway. It's the best case of indoctrination I've seen."
Shelton said that Safeway is "an efficient, well-run company, or else it wouldn't be No. 1 in the country." Some of his customers are less favorably inclined toward the giant chain.
"I can't bear the Safeway. They're terrible, rotten stores. This is the only store on the Hill that is satisfactory," said Rebecca Welch, who lives on Massachusetts Avenue. Shelton's store is "very nice, very helpful. The people in the store are very nice even at the end of the day when your kid is fussy and they're probably feeling tired," she said.
(Safeway spokesman Ernest Moore admitted that the Safeway across from the Eastern Market is an old store that is "too small for the area." Its size and age make running it difficult, he said, but there are no current plans to close it. He said Safeway has not felt an impact from Shelton's store.)
Shelton said that he tries to stock items that his customers ask for, and his customers back this claim up. "Mr. Shelton - he's a nice man. If there's something you want, he'll make arrangements to get it for you," said Deborah Barrett of 12th Street. He had done so for her for a particular cut of meat, she said.
Shelton said that once, after the store had closed, he had received a frantic call from a customer looking for pectin. He told the customer to come over and then Shelton rummaged around till he found som. A few days later, Shelton said, the customer brought him a jar of strawberry jam made with the pectin.
Another customer, Abigail Temple of 11th Street, recalls: "I had a coupon for 20 pounds of Purina Cat Chow, and he (Shelton) didn't carry that size.He very kindly let me have two 10 pound bags and let me come back for the second bag later when it was more convenient to carry," she said.
Providing such service makes economic sense, Shelton said. For instance, when he stocked bean sprouts at a customer's request, it became a big seller. It also attracts customers to his store and makes loyalists out of them.
Shelton, who grew up in Pittsburgh where his family operated a pharmacy, ended up on Capitol Hill almost by accident. "When I made the final decision that it was time for me to be in business this was the only site open to me that was earmarked for closing (by another grocery business)," he said.
It was important to have an established location. "It's difficult enough to sell the potential of George Shelton without having to sell an unknown site," he said. In spite of the accidental nature of the location, "Shelton's Market Basket and Capitol Hill just turned out to be a good marriage," he said.
There are two populations on the Hill: the young professionals, mainly white, who have moved in and restored houses; and black families who have lived there for a longer time and who are generally less affluent. Shelton said he believes he serves them both.
"I never operated the store as anything other than a good retail store," said Shelton. "The black community support is the sam as the white community support. They want the samethings. They don't want to be mauled and panhandled. They don't want poor quality meat. If they want lamb, they want lamb. They don't want to be told if they're poor they should be eating offal.
"We sell the food the community votes for with their dollars," he said.
He would like to move to the Hill "as soon as I can afford it," he said. "It's difficult to provide adequate housing and start a business at the same time."
For the time being, running the store has almost obliterated other aspects of Shelton's life, but, he added, "It's fun."