The Woodridge Safeway in Northeast D.C., on the verge of closing four months ago, will remain open as a limited assortment store. It will be converted later this month and renamed "Food Box," community and Safeway spokesmen announced last Friday.
The conversion of the Woodridge store, at 1730 Hamlin St. NE, will coincide with the conversion of another Safeway at 5227 Georgia Ave. NW. The two groceries will be the Safeway company's first Food Box stores to open in the eastern United States.
In April, Safeway officials announced that the store was too small to make a profit. They said the company would close it because of "rising labor and energy costs, coupled with declining sales over the past couple of years."
In response to pressure from community leaders, however, Safeway officials sought ways to save the store. Last week, company officials and community spokesmen gathered in front of the tiny Hamlin Street Safeway to announce publicly their victory in the battle to keep the store open.
Neighborhood residents, many of them retired government workers, comprise the majority of the store's customers. Several said they are glad the store will stay open, but that converting it into the Food Box is only a partial victory.
The Food Box stores will carry a reduced stock of grocery items. "The Hamlin Street Safeway now carries about 10,000 items; after the conversion it will carry about 1,000," said Safeway spokesman Ernie Moore.
No fresh meat will be available in Food Box stores and customers will have to pack their own groceries. As a part of the Woodridge store's conversion, most of the refrigeration will be removed, fewer employees will be needed to run the store and, Safeway officials promised, prices on some items will be lower than at conventional supermarkets.
There were "sighs of relief" at a recent meeting of about 50 neighborhood residents when they found out that some sort of store would stay open in Woodridge, said Emanuel Lipscomb, president of the Woodridge Civic Association. "The community is very happy that Safeway found a way to continue service," said Lipscomb, 50, who was present Friday when Safeway officials placed a large sign in the front window of the store announcing the conversion.
When asked what they thought of the Food Box idea, few customers understood fully what the store would provide, but their immediate reactions were not favorable.
Ruby Reid, 59, who shops regularly at the Woodridge Safeway, said, "I like fresh vegetables, I like milk, I like juices. I like the stuff that needs refrigeration. They can close it down if all they're going to have is the stuff that doesn't need refrigeration." Lucille Kain, 70, another regular customer who shops for herself and her retired husband, said, "It won't be the same. It seems like they're just going to sell box food or something. A lot of people don't have cars to go elsewhere to buy their meats and the other things which they won't be able to get here."
Councilman William Spaulding (D -- Ward 5), who represents the Woodridge area, was on hand for the Safeway announcement. He pointed out that "community volunteers are going to provide a free shuttle service from here to the Michigan Avenue (NE) Safeway while this one is closed for three weeks (from Sept. 13 to early October)."
When the Food Box opens, the shuttle service will end.
One Safeway employee, active in the United Food and Commercial Workers' Union, expressed bitterness about the conversion. The employee, who refused to identify himself, said he expected to lose his job when Safeway becomes a Food Box. He said he was afraid that Safeway would lay off current employees and hire new workers at minimum wage to maximize their profits.
Larry Johnson, a Safeway public relations manager, said, "There will be no layoffs as a result of the conversions. We will transfer our present workers to other area stores and new people will be hired." The new workers will be paid less than employees at conventional Safeway stores, he added.
Safeway officials admit that the success of the Food Box stores is questionable. "Food Box is Safeway's newest project. We're taking a wait-and-see-attitude," Johnson said.