Empty shelves, long lines and decaying produce are among the many complaints D.C. Council member Vincent Gray (D-Ward-7) heard firsthand when he made an unannounced visit to the the Safeway in the East River Park Shopping Center in Northeast.
Gray met with representatives from Safeway’s corporate headquarters in April requesting the store decrease wait-times and improve customer service and sanitation. On Thursday morning, he led a surprise inspection of the store to see how much progress it had made. As he examined two packages of moldy strawberries, he said he was “very disappointed” by what he found.
“No improvements have been made — except maybe the floors have been swept,” said Gray, who spent two hours in the store. “I wish I could say I expected more.”
The Safeway is one of two grocery stores in Ward 7 — the other is a Safeway on the corner of Alabama Avenue and Good Hope Road in Southeast, which Gray also toured Thursday — responsible for feeding the ward’s 71,000 residents. As grocery stores have proliferated in gentrifying parts of the city, the number of supermarkets in the District’s poorest neighborhoods east of the Anacostia has shrunk, exacerbating the city’s long-standing “grocery gap.”
Long lines at the East River Park Safeway could get even longer now that its operating hours have been cut, said local Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner Tyrell Holcomb, who accompanied Gray on the tour of the store at the intersection of Minnesota Avenue and Benning Road NE. Starting last week, the store cut hours from 6 a.m. until 10 p.m. to 7 a.m. until 9 p.m.
Every other Safeway in the District is open until midnight or 24 hours.
Reduced hours are just one example of the store not receiving “the same attention and respect that other Safeways get,” Gray said.
He and Holcomb wanted an explanation for the reduced hours.
But Jerome Jackson, the assistant manager, said he didn’t have one.
“There is some information where you’ll want to call corporate,” said Jackson, who has worked at Safeway for six months.
Beth Goldberg, senior manager of community and public affairs in Safeway’s Eastern Division, did not respond to a request about why Safeway changed its hours.
In a statement, she said customers in Ward 7 are “of the utmost importance to us and we have actively worked to improve their experience.”
“This includes increasing checkout-lane staff; expanding our product and service offerings to include delivery, more fresh options and easy-to-find favorites throughout the store; refreshing the layout and organization inside the store; and continuing to support the Ward 7 community as we always have,” Goldberg said. “These changes are in the process of being implemented or are already part of our store operations.”
The store’s manager, Jackson’s boss, was not at work Thursday, Jackson said. But the manager was called to come in to answer Gray’s questions.
As they waited for the manager to arrive, Gray and Holcomb perused the aisles, examining produce, bread and meat and talking with shoppers and employers. In the meat section, they found a piece of steak that was brown and poorly packaged.
Asked for an explanation, the butcher replied it was likely something a customer had returned that had accidentally been placed back on the shelves. Apologizing, he explained that it was an oversight.
Jackson, speaking quietly and earnestly, said that employees are doing their best to provide quality service in what can be a difficult environment.
“We deal with a lot here,” he said.
He’s caught grandmothers stealing food and found young people passed out in the bathrooms. Two weeks ago, he kept customers inside the store when they heard shots fired outside, he said.
As Jackson spoke, a teenager on a bright yellow bicycle rode quickly out of the store.
Gray and Holcomb said despite the challenges, the Safeway is still making money — and the customers who are giving them that money deserve better treatment.
“The sad truth is that people come in here and expect to be treated poorly,” Gray said.
After two hours, Gray and his team left. The manager had yet to arrive.