A sign on the door of Best Kitchen Supply on Morse Street NE asks patrons to press a buzzer to get in, but regulars know the truth: The door is rarely locked. Within, they find more insider secrets in the form of kitchen treasures of every kind, their prices as inviting as the open door.
From shelves stocked in a no-frills warehouse style, you can score a restaurant-grade 10-inch chef’s knife for $29.19 and a squeeze bottle for 69 cents. And back on Morse, to the left and right of the storefront, stretch other shops similarly crammed with quirky wholesale items and food from almost every continent.
Best Kitchen Supply and its neighbors crouch in low brick buildings under most shoppers’ radar. They hum to the beep of trucks in reverse, the smell of produce at varying levels of freshness and the tastiness of good deals.
Though Best Supply focuses on commercial kitchen needs, “any individuals are welcome to stop in,” says owner Lisa Choi, 54. And home cooks lucky enough to find the place do come, seeking tools like vegetable peelers, Microplane graters and storage containers. They just know not to expect them laid out like a Williams-Sonoma display.
In the stockroom of the store, which she started with her husband 27 years ago, Choi sums up her business simply: “We are unique.” That statement is gaining more truth with every step toward neighborhood redevelopment.
Choi’s business sits on a shrinking strip of scrappiness, sometimes called the Florida Avenue Market and sometimes the Capital City Market, at odds with the NoMa residential neighborhood to the south and the new Union Market to the north. In recent years, NoMa has hosted a duet of residential and commercial revitalization, accompanied by the pitter-patter of tiny dog feet and the glimmer of new chain grocery stores. Union Market, on Neal Place between Fifth and Sixth streets NE, opened as a fully renovated upscale market in fall 2012. Now with more than 30 vendors, it has became a local gourmet-shopping destination.
I discovered the area that blurs the line between wholesale and retail more than a decade ago. My new co-workers at Gallaudet University were eager to advise a young transplant about favorites from where to get my oil changed to what to eat for lunch. The subs at the Italian food store A. Litteri, just outside the campus gates, topped their list for midday fare. The place that regulars call Litteri’s become a gateway for this food-loving Washingtonian.
I soon ventured farther into the warehouse district, to great reward. I found Obeng International Wholesale and Retail brimming with the fufu and banku I missed from my time studying in Ghana; another shop made me giddy with its pan-Asian conglomeration of Thai ingredients, sushi supplies and every pickled and preserved food of China.
When I started my first blog in 2007, one of my posts paid tribute to those stores. I called their products “gold in cardboard boxes.” Whenever a friend shows an adequate level of food obsession, I bestow my recommendation: Check out these hidden morsels on Morse.
Many stores on Morse and the surrounding network of narrow streets claim roots predating their boxy, cement-floored buildings. Some trace their family trees to the great-grandfather of D.C. public vendor spaces: Centre Market, which opened its steepled brick building on Pennsylvania Avenue and Seventh Street NW in 1871. When Centre Market was razed in 1931 to make way for the National Archives, many of the vendors jumped to Terminal Market in Northeast. Terminal Market became DC Farmers Market and is now Union Market.
A. Litteri followed a similar migration, moving from a location at Sixth and G streets NW to its current spot on Morse in 1932. The owner is the grandson of A. Litteri’s original partner. So it’s little wonder that store manager and wine specialist Ken Nankervis, 46, sees a deep customer base.
“We have an extremely diverse clientele, many introduced to us by their parents and grandparents,” he says. A large number come from outside the District.
Places such as Best Supply and Afrik International Market, on the other hand, opened in the 1980s and ’90s. Yet they, too, are creating a legacy.
Choi tells the story of a teenager who first came into her shop tagging along with his parents. That boy grew up and now stops by of his own volition, as a Virginia restaurant owner. (She doesn’t know his name.)
At Afrik, I met Ola Adeyeye shopping with her 2-year-old son. She drives from her home in Lanham, Md., for good prices on staples like goat meat and tilapia that she remembers from her home country of Nigeria. As Adeyeye’s toddler scampered through the aisles, I could imagine him coming back here in a few decades to feed his own family a taste of their heritage. That is, if the market is still here.
Now that Union Market is approaching its second birthday, changes in the Morse Street clientele and the stores themselves are creeping in. I remember when $7 could buy a generous bowl of bibimbap with all the fixings at Yoon Ha’s Kitchen, a Korean restaurant in a diminutive prefab house at Morse and Third streets. The dish now goes for $8.99, the same price as a trio of fusion-stuffed tortillas at TaKorean at Union Market. Where A. Litteri stuck to a utilitarian design aesthetic for as long as I can remember, Nankervis has infused it with such touches as decor features made of wine bottles, and he has rebuilt part of the store as a wine- and specialty product-tasting area. Those changes came about as Union Market started bringing more foot traffic to the area and the wine shop Cordial opened in the new market.
The changes coming from the outside are more drastic. A billboard at Florida Avenue and Fourth Street tags the area as “the future home to the first residences in Union Market,” referring to a proposed 200-unit apartment building.
Edens and Sang Oh Development have submitted plans not only for the parcel that the billboard sits on but also another on Fourth Street, and a mammoth building at 300 Morse St. is reportedly for sale. In 2015, an eight-screen Angelika movie theater is slated to open just north of Union Market.
The business owners approach the changes with a mixture of confusion and preparation.
“In two years, the market will not be what it is today,” says Pius Ezeigwe, the owner of Afrik International Market. That’s about all he knows for sure. Ezeigwe bought new property in Maryland to be ready.
As for Choi, she admires the Edens oeuvre, including the Mosaic development near her home in Northern Virginia. “The company takes time and does it right,” Choi observes.
Yet when it comes to the property under her feet six days a week, she hasn’t seen much movement and has given up going to community meetings about it. Even the fact that Edens development partner Sang Oh Choi is her brother-in-law hasn’t brought her any more details. When his family members ask — even those who own businesses in the area — the developer reports only that plans constantly evolve. Lisa Choi just hopes that any major changes will hold off until she retires.
Even if they take a while, proposals and trends don’t bode well for these stores. The development plan for the Florida Avenue plot mentions ground-floor retail mixed in with residential and hotel space. But precedent in other neighborhoods says that is more likely to mean chain drugstores, restaurants and grocery stores than small, independent businesses.
Ro Freeman, a regular Litteri’s customer, applauds the fact that her favorite sub place doesn’t follow the big-box style of retail. And everyone I talked to said they hope to see the shop stick around.
“It’s a hidden gem,” Freeman says. “You get the personal touch.”
Kennedy is a Washington writer and teacher. She’ll join today’s online chat at noon: live.washingtonpost.com.