George Shelton, who defied skeptics who said a black-owned supermarket couldn't make it on Capitol Hill, yesterday opened his second supermarket -- on Capitol Hill.
After a ribbon-cutting ceremony highlighted by a promise of protection from the city police chief, Shelton told a reporter, "I hope this isn't another one of those 'Negro-makes-good' stories, but I would like for people to know that there are opportunities for blacks in the U.S. All people have to do is step out and take a chance on themselves."
City Council member Nadine P. Winter (D-Ward 6), who has pushed for more supermarkets in her ward, congratulated Shelton for dispelling what she termed "myths" that the area was too crime-ridden for a grocer to do well.
"Many (supermarkets) have left the inner city because of stealing and crime," Winter said. "But you have proven that many of the remarks that we have heard are simply not true."
Harold Bobs, chairman of the board of the Greater Washington Business Center, which helped Shelton get a loan from the Federal Small Business Administration, said Shelton was "an example that, given the opportunities and the tools, minorities could get the job done."
Shelton, 42, started in the business as a check-out clerk while in college. He opened his first store four years ago at 500 12th St. SE, just 12 blocks from the Capitol, in the same spot where an A&P had closed because of declining business. Within a few months, Shelton's Marketbasket was doing twice the volume of the A&P store.
Shelton is currently a top candidate under consideration by Safeway to take over its Anacostia store, scheduled to close in April.
Shelton has won wide customer acceptance in his Capitol Hill neighborhood, where residents frequently complain about other food stores, particularly the larger chains.
"I've been shopping here for a long time," said Betty Ann Kane a City Council member and a Capitol Hill resident. "It is clean, the employes are courteous, and there is such variety. They have everything from Haagen Dazs ice cream to chitterlings and ribs."
After working his way through the University of Pittsburgh as a check-out clerk, Shelton decided that he did not want to be a pharmacist like his mother.
Instead, he joined the Kroger Company's management training program, and soon was made assistant manager at a store in Pittsburgh.
In December 1976, he decided to go into business for himself in Washington, after contacting "Potomac fever" during a visit. His first inquiries about loans proved futile.
"There was a feeling in Washington's financial community that a minority could not serve an integrated neighborhood," Shelton recalled. "As they saw it, only whites could serve whites, although blacks and whites could serve a black community."
Shelton finally obtained financing through the SBA and the Bank of Columbia in the District, after taking the bank's president on a tour of the neighborhood and convincing him that it would support his venture.
Today, blacks and whites from all parts of the Capitol Hill area patronize his store.
His secret of success?
"Humor," Shelton replies. "You just can't take none of this too seriously. During hard (economic) times, food is the first thing people cut back on, but we still manage with a smile.
"In all business, anytime you have people transferring to you the wealth of their labor, it does become a personal and intimate relationship."
Was that philosophy gleaned from the volumes of Aristotle, Plato and Socrates that fill the bookshelves in his office?
"No, I got that out of the National Lampoon," he replied.