Whenever the Rev. Albert T. Davis gets his occasional, undeniable urge for fresh, plump porgies, he makes a half-hour trip from his upper Northwest home, bypassing several chain supermarkets, to the Super Pride store in far Northeast, where he figures he can get the best deal.
Operating out of a former Safeway store at 5110 Nannie Helen Burroughs Ave. NE, Super Pride is the District's largest black-owned and -operated supermarket and, with 40 workers, one of Ward 7's biggest employers.
The store not only caters to the specialized needs and tastes of its predominately black clientele in the Deanwood area, just west of the Maryland line, but in the process, draws customers from all over the metropolitan area with its merchandising formula.
"It's not that you can't get the kind of food that we sell at any other store," said general manager Edward Brown, referring to the chitterlings, hog's heads, pig's tails, and pork feet, brains and skins that line the Super Pride shelves. "It's just that we have more of what our people want and can keep the prices down. For the other stores, it's a guessing game as to how much to sell."
The demand for Super Pride's supply of "soul food" keeps the store's workers busy restocking display cases, particularly during holidays.
"Rather than one row of this or a couple of packages of that, we put up eight-foot spreads of black-eyed peas, collards and yams," Brown said. "We can hardly keep Jiffy cornbread mix on the shelves."
In an average week, Brown estimated, the store sells 300 pounds of pork maws, 800 pounds of yams and nearly a ton of fresh and frozen chitterlings.
On the other hand, the store does not do particularly well in selling T-bones and Delmonicos. "Except on payday," amended Brown. "Our customers don't go hog wild over steaks."
The Rev. Davis was there last Thursday with bargains on his mind. "Most every week they run a special, and I hate to miss them," said Davis, pastor of Glorious Faith Bible Church, a few blocks from Super Pride.
He already had selected the porgies he wanted and was looking for just the right neckbone for homemade soup. "When I see a bargain, it goes straight in the basket."
Davis and 10,000 other bargain-hunters push shopping carts up and down the aisles of Super Pride during any given week, lured by the unusual combination of down-home staples, unusual delicacies and mainstream necessities: One shelf holds Provolone cheese and raspberry yogurt, another is filled with pickled pig's ears.
Super Pride had its start in 1969 when a group of black Baltimore businessmen set out to build a chain of black-owned and -operated supermarkets serving the inner city. They formed Community Foods Inc. and dubbed their flagship store, at the corner of Baltimore's Chase Street and Patterson Park Avenue, "Super Jet." That choice of names, company president Henry Edwards explained, "was the spirit of the times."
Now, 13 years later, Community Foods Inc. is a $20 million business with a five-store supermarket chain, an institutional foods division and 300 employes. The Super Jet name was dropped years ago in favor of Super Pride.
A number of other black-owned supermarkets were started during the same era by entrepreneurs with similar ambitions. Most notable was the Big V chain, which at the height of its success in the early 1970s operated seven food stores in the Washington area.
The Big V chain has broken up, most of its stores having been sold, demolished or left vacant, while Super Pride has expanded its operations.
In 1981, Super Pride broke into the Washington market, settling in the Deanwood location with some financial assistance from the city's Office of Business and Economic Development.
"While independent food stores tend to have tunnel vision, Super Pride identified a specific market," said Lawrence Schumake, the agency's director. "They didn't just move into a building because it happened to be there. There's a definite deficiency in food services in that area. There's no question that Super Pride has made an impact."
Super Pride was especially welcomed by the Marshall Heights Development Corporation, a Northeast community organization created to lure businesses to the area.
"We made several trips to Baltimore to help bring them here," said Carrie Thornhill, community development director of the corporation, which helped screen more than 200 applicants who sought jobs at the store. "We want it to be an anchor for a mini-business complex of sorts," she said.
Although thousands of customers shop there, the Washington store has yet to turn a profit like its older sister stores up the Baltimore-Washington Parkway. "But you don't just open your doors one day and expect a profit the next," Brown said.
Edwards said Community Foods Inc. plans to open more stores once its Washington branch becomes financially solvent. "Our approach has been conservative," he said. "We make sure each facility is successful before moving on."
Most executives and managers of the Super Pride chain are, like Edwards, veterans of big-name, mainstream supermarket chains, who say they joined Super Pride because it allows them more authority and flexibility. Edwards, for example, worked for Safeway stores in Washington and as a district manager for Jewel food stores in Chicago after graduating from Harvard Business School.
Although Super Pride's success has depended largely on a black clientele, company officials rarely call attention to the chain's black ownership.
"We never played on the idea that we're black," Edwards said. "We have to earn our customers' respect and loyalty just like anybody else. All we ask is to let us show what we can do."
Aside from its generous stocks of soul food, the Washington Super Pride looks like any other supermarket, with posters screaming specials on chicken wings and paper towels, employes stacking soup cans and soda bottles on shelves and shoppers squeezing oranges.
Edwards said the company makes a special effort to overcome stereotypes associated with some black businesses. "We're not a mom-and-pop store," Edwards said. "We have to fight a lot of preconceived notions about black food retailers. The history has not been good, and we hate to see that."
Indeed, most customers seem oblivious to Super Pride's origins as they move through the store with Super Pride's bold black-and-yellow shopping bags.
"Thursday's the day they put all the nice, fresh stuff out," said Vivian Grinnage, explaining why she shops at Super Pride, as she helped her friend Carolyn Haywood load one of their eight shopping bags one day last week.
Both women said they had not known the store was black-owned. "What difference does it make?" said Grinnage, as she and Haywood drove off with foodstuffs costing $152.
"I don't think the average customer knows or even cares that it's black-owned and -operated," observed Ann Jackson, executive assistant to council member H.R. Crawford (D-Ward 7). "It's not an issue. Period. People just want a convenient grocery store where they can shop."