In 1971, a new, highly-praised, black-owned supermarket chain known as the Big V began taking over inner city stores abandoned during Washington's supermarket exodus that followed the 1968 riots.
Today, the Big V experiment is over. The chain has broken up. The Big V stores have mainly been sold, demolished or left vacant. Of seven Big Vs that once operated in the District of Columbia, according to officials familiar with the venture, only one is still being run by its original Big V owners. They have changed their store's name to signify their break with the past.
"We're the last ones, but we are no longer Big Vs," Lindon W. Davis, the supermarket's manager, said in an interview this month. The store, at 1325 Rhode Island Ave. NE, is located in the Brentwood Shopping Center, which Davis and his partner, Harold R. Perry, now own. They said their store, the Brentwood Super Market, has increased its business and is turning a profit.
The Big V experiment - a business failure that apparently gave birth to at least one local successful venture - is one reflection of the considerable uncertainties that surround continuing efforts by black-owned and other independent grocery businesses to fill what they regard as a void left by Safeway and other major supermarket chains here as they closed more than half their city stores during the past decade.
In the view of officials familiar with the supermarket industry, it is as yet unclear whether any of the black-owned and other independent supermarkets opened here in recent years will achieve their aim of filling this apparent void. Independent supermarkets are believed to account for only a relatively small proportion of the groceries sold to city residents. Some low-income shoppers complain, moreover, that prices charged at independent stores are too high.
Nevertheless, a number of black-owned supermarkets, in addition to the Brentwood store have continued to operate, apparently with at least modest success and some prospect of gradual expansion.
The small-black-owned Four Guys Supermarket firm, which began operations with some fanfare in 1969, has maintained several outlets, although its first store on Alabama Avenue SE recently was sold. Another black supermarket owner who has gained respect among local business officials is George L. Shelton, who took over a store vacated by A&P at 12th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue SE in December 1976. Shelton said in an interview that he is negotiating for additional, nearby store sites.
Some inner-city supermarkets abandoned by the major food chains have also been taken over by Asian immigrants, including Vietnamese and Korean-owned businessess. The Four Guys store on Alabama Avenue SE near Stanton Road, for example, was sold in December to a Korean immigrant couple, Chang and Kyung Lee.
Some of these independent supermarket owners said in interviews that, although they sometimes cannot match the chain stores' grocery prices, they believe they can offset their competitive disadvantage by offering more specialty foods, improved service and greater convenience. They also said they can operate more cheaply than the major chains because of greater labor flexibility and fewer administrative expenses.
The Big V chain, started in 1971, had expanded rapidly before it began to split apart. The venture, established with assistance from the Washington Council for Equal Business Opportunity, had been designed as a co-operative, a mechanism intended to give the stores more purchasing clout than they would have had separately. A management corporation was set up to other operations. By 1973, however, five initial Big V owners had already broken from the chain, mainly because of disagreements over the pooling system.
"We found that there were serious management problems," said Joseph D. Jackson, who at the time was executive director of the Washington Council for Equal Business Opportunity. Jackson now is president of the District of Columbia Development Corp. "The management company even made mistakes," he added.
According to Jackson and others, many of the Big V chain's troubles stemmed from insufficient financing, which became a barrier to making improvements in stores, maintaining adequate assortments of groceries and attracting more customers. "In some cases, our wholesalers put us on a C.O.D. basis," Jackson noted. Other problems apparently ranged from excessive shop-lifting and theft by employees to administrative fallings by some store managers.
Although the Big V chain was primarily a Washington venture, it also opened a few outlets outside the city, including several in Baltimore. One of the former Baltimore Big Vs is still in business as an independent. Its name has been changed to Save Rite. The other Big V stores outside Washington are reported to have closed.
The Rhode Island Avenue Big V, now the Brentwood Super Market, apparently survived because it differed in several ways from other Big V ventures. The store, its owners, said, was the largest in the Big V chain - more than twice the size of some other Big V stores. It opened in 1973 in an area where shoppers had had to travel increasingly long distances to buy groceries. "There was great demand for a market here," Davis said. In addition, both Perry and Davis had had considerable experience, they noted, as employees of major supermarket chains, including Safeway.
Three years ago, Perry and Davis bought the shopping center in which their supermarket is located. They said they are now seeking financing to modernize and enlarge the shopping complex.
The Four Guys Supermarket group is now operating stores that once were part of the Safeway chain - one at 2201 4th St. NE and another at 3178 Mount Pleasant St. NW. In addition, the Capitol Hill Supermarket, at 241 Massachusetts Ave, NE. was taken over last August by Four Guys treasurer John W. Moaney. The store, now operated by his wife and son, had previously been a Big V and, still earlier, a Safeway.
"We've been very low-key," Moaney said in an interview in which he compared Four Guys with the more widely publicized Big V enterprise. "I feel that headline grabbing is fine, but it's not putting money in your pocket or helping you over the rough spots." In addition to selling its Alabama Avenue store, Moaney said, Four Guys also gave up a nearby carry-out shop, opened in 1973, because it failed to make money.
Independent supermarket owners and others familiar with the food business say that one major difficulty faced by independent stores in trying to compete with chain supermarket prices is that the chains often promote lower-priced house brands carrying the chains' own labels. These are seldom available to independent stores.
Some independent store owners say, however, that they can cut some costs more easily than the chains partly because they do not have to pass on a profit to a parent company. "We don't have that headquarters contribution to make. We don't have that administrative staff to maintain," Shelton, the owner of Shelton's Marketbasket at 12th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue SE, remarked.
The independent stores also appear to have considerable flexibility in shifting employees among jobs because they often are not unionized. At the Four Guys on 4th Street NE, Moaney pointed to an assistant store manager who had taken time from his normal duties to wrap lettuce in the produce section. Another employee, who often worked as a cashier, was stamping prices on merchandise and restocking the shelves. If the store were unionized, Moaney said, such job switches would not be permitted.
According to Shelton, his store is already doing substantially more business than the A&P it replaced at the 12th Street SE site. Shelton attributed the increased sales partly to what he said was a wider assortment of foods than A&P had offered and partly to improved service, including a 12-passenger van that picks up elderly customers who want to shop at his store.
"No one in this store would dare tell you that they can't cut a roast for you," Shelton remarked. "I can't meet Safeway on item by item, but I can give them enough grief on the edge of things that I can make a niche for myself."