On a stretch of Rhode Island Avenue that for years was a food desert stands Good Food Markets, a small neighborhood grocery store that opened in January 2015.
Arranged neatly on shelves inside a tiny retail space of a mere 800 square feet is a diverse selection of fresh, packaged and prepared items. There’s pasta and canned tomatoes for a quick weeknight dinner, but also fresh fruit and vegetables, organic quinoa in bulk and even Vietnamese spring roll wrappers.
“I love it,” said Senait Teklehaimanot, 48, a resident of nearby Woodridge who does almost all of her weekly shopping at Good Food Markets. “They’re reasonably priced and have good products.”
Good Food Markets is just one of a handful of neighborhood grocery stores that have opened across the District recently, part of what appears to be a resurgence of small-scale groceries catering to neighborhood residents — in stark contrast to the trend of disappearing mom-and-pop stores in small towns across the country.
Even as more openings are in the pipeline for large retail chains such as Whole Foods and Wegmans, the smaller neighborhood stores are making their mark. By one count, at least six have opened since 2015, and more are in the works.
Of course, neighborhood groceries are not new to the city. The family-owned Rodman’s has been a fixture of Northwest Washington since 1955. And Yes Organic Market, which now has six stores across the District, traces its roots back to 1970, when it opened under its original name Yes Food Shop in Georgetown.
But the most recent spike suggests a shift in the dynamics of the city’s grocery business.
There is a “renaissance of the neighborhood,” said Keith Sellars, president and chief executive of the Washington D.C. Economic Partnership, a nonprofit, “and people want services that they can walk to” as well as “convenience on all levels.”
The new corner groceries are part of a broader back-to-the-city movement in parts of the country, said Brett Theodos, a senior research associate in the Metropolitan Housing and Communities Policy Center at the Urban Institute. That trend, Theodos said, is driving demand for a “job-rich, transit-rich environment” and “the meeting together of commercial and residential sectors in a way that feels very authentic and vibrant.”
Grocery stores, writes Michael Ruhlman in his new book “Grocery: The Buying and Selling of Food in America,” are “a barometer of our country’s collective state of mind.”
On a more local level, corner grocery stores can also trace the contours of a changing city. As the District has developed over the years, its grocery stores have also evolved with it.
Between the late-19th to early-20th centuries, hundreds of eastern European Jews, lured to the United States by the promise of religious freedom and economic opportunity, opened small grocery stores in the Washington area.
In the early ’20s, a dozen of these grocers teamed up to establish a cooperative: the District Grocery Stores. At its peak, the cooperative boasted 300 stores across the city and surrounding suburbs. But the arrival of the first Giant supermarket in 1936 presaged disruptive changes to the existing grocery market. Already,“the writing was on the wall,” as a Washington Post story put it.
Still, the District Grocery Stores chugged along. The 1968 riots that rocked the city, however, destroyed many stores, and the cooperative dissolved in 1972.
Then came the Koreans, a group of new immigrants who brought about a renaissance of the mom and pop corner grocery store. By 1980, Koreans owned an estimated half of the District’s corner stores. But this also gave rise to resentment from the black community, and confrontations over money, territory, and race played out over grocery store counters.
In recent years, corner grocery stores have earned another reputation: as suppliers of liquor and highly processed, unhealthy foods.
Efforts have been made to improve the offerings, but many still fall short of stocking the necessary goods for a nutritious diet. This leaves a large gap between retail chains and corner stores — a gap that the new neighborhood grocery stores are trying to fill.
When Tracy Stannard and John Fielding opened Broad Branch Market in the District’s Chevy Chase neighborhood in 2008, they decided to stock high-quality fresh produce and fresh fish and butchered meats in addition to the usual beer and wine, candy and prepared foods.
Their decision to go into the grocery business had everyone telling them, “You’re crazy,” they recalled. The neighborhood market, which dates to 1919, had sat vacant for several years. On top of that, neither Stannard nor Fielding had any experience selling groceries — both had come from restaurant backgrounds.
The partners succeeded, anyway — perhaps due in part to their great timing. They were at the forefront of the corner store revival, right on the cusp of the city’s demographic boom driven by an influx of millennials.
Now, almost 10 years later, Broad Branch Market is in the company of numerous other neighborhood grocery stores. There’s Glen’s Garden Market in Dupont Circle and Shaw; Streets Market and Cafe on 14th Street and on the corner of 13th and Massachusetts Avenue; Union Kitchen Grocery on Capitol Hill and in Shaw; and Good Food Markets on Rhode Island Avenue. Stannard and Fielding also recently opened Soapstone Market in Van Ness, in November 2016.
Rising demand spurred by a growing population and increasing income levels helps explain the trend, said Theodos of the Urban Institute.
Consumer tastes have also evolved in recent years.
“The general person has much more food knowledge than people did 20 years ago” and are looking for more and higher-quality options, said Fielding, co-owner of the Broad Branch and Soapstone markets.
And people might just have had enough of big-box stores. Half of U.S. consumers shop at three or more stores to get all their groceries, which include a growing number of specialty items, according to Magid, a Minnesota-based research firm.
“A lot of people are sick of how big they are,” Fielding said of the large retail chains.
But beyond reflecting market trends, these neighborhood grocery stores are also where pressing questions facing the city are playing out: How should the District balance the need to revitalize some of its neighborhoods while avoiding the worst outcomes of gentrification, such as rising costs, and ensuring equitable food access for all?
On a recent Monday morning, Lysaundra Campbell, 26, stopped by the newly opened Streets Market and Cafe on Massachusetts Avenue to pick up milk and a box of cereal on her way to work. She commutes from Anacostia every day and doesn’t usually have time for breakfast at home — so the addition of this grocery store has been very convenient, she said.
Still, she would hate to see a store like Streets Market and Cafe in her own neighborhood because “it’s a sure sign of gentrification,” she said, which in her view means the eventual displacement of longtime residents and loss of neighborhood character.
Owners of these newer neighborhood grocery markets push back against the idea that their stores, which often stock more expensive, specialty items, price out lower-income consumers and are yet another instance of gentrification.
For one thing, many of the new stores have opened in spaces that had stood vacant for some time. And Soapstone Market, in Van Ness, has been part of a broader effort to revitalize the neighborhood.
“The neighborhood really needed a hangout space, kind of a third space,” said Theresa Cameron, executive director of Van Ness Main Street, part of the D.C. Main Streets program that works to revitalize traditional business districts in the city. Now, Soapstone — a combination of grocery store, deli, bar, and cafe — is providing just that, she said: a gathering space for the community.
On Rhode Island Avenue, Good Food Markets is also serving as an anchor for the community.
“It is absolutely building a sense of place” to have the Good Food Markets in the neighborhood, along with the capoeira studio next door and a coffee shop nearby, said Kyle Todd, executive director of Rhode Island Avenue Main Street.
But this still leaves the question of whether the new corner grocery stores are affordable to the general population.
Danielle Vogel, owner of Glen’s Garden Market, said that she consciously price-matches her retail chain competitors.
Cullen Gilchrist, the chief executive and co-founder of Union Kitchen, which operates two grocery stores specializing in local products and has plans to open more, said that his company aims to attract everyone, from young professionals to construction workers.
“In building a local economy, we can’t just serve a subset of people,” he said.
And at Good Food Markets, the driving mission of the entire business is “bringing the overall progress of prosperity and development across the District,” co-founder Kris Garin said.
Good Food Markets intentionally chose to open on Rhode Island Avenue between the two Northeast neighborhoods of Woodridge and Langdon, where close to a quarter of the population are food stamp recipients, said Philip Sambol, the vice president for operations. The goal is to make healthy food accessible to everyone.
“Access means it’s affordable, culturally appropriate, and you feel comfortable walking into the store itself,” Sambol said.
For Teklehaimanot, a Good Food Markets regular, this focus on access is a relief.
“Usually when a neighborhood gentrifies, the new stores that open are mostly very expensive,” she said. But Good Food Markets has kept things affordable, even as it also stocks a selection of specialty organic and local products.
“It’s good for everyone,” she said.
Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the origins of Yes Organic Market. This version has been corrected.