Nine months after one of the Washington region’s major grocery chains was purchased by a Rhode Island-based company, local officials, residents and employees are demanding answers about the fate of more than 40 supermarkets the chain operates in the area.
SuperValu, the parent company of Shoppers Food & Pharmacy, was sold in October to United Natural Foods Inc., a distributor of natural and organic foods that is a major supplier for Whole Foods Market.
In March, the chief executive of United Natural Foods said the company was “well down the path” of selling the chain, which used to be known as Shoppers Food Warehouse. This summer, its outlet in Chillum, Md., shut its doors. A store in Falls Church, Va., will close Sept. 1.
But it’s unclear when the 44 remaining Shoppers locations in Maryland and Virginia will close and what will replace them — prompting calls for more transparency from elected officials and the union that represents Shoppers’ employees.
“This is ridiculous,” state Del. Dereck E. Davis (D-Prince George’s) said at a rally this month outside the Shoppers in Coral Hills, Md. “Consider the employees and not just the profits.”
United Natural Foods spokesman Jeffrey Swanson said in a statement that the company has been “open about its plans to divest of its retail banners” and hopes to find buyers for the stores who will keep operating them as grocery stores.
“Please know that this process takes time and involves other parties,” Swanson said. “As such, we aren’t able to provide details until there is something concrete to announce.”
In Prince George’s County, which had 12 Shoppers stores until the Chillum outlet closed, the loss of any supermarket would be felt especially hard. About 15 percent of the suburb is classified by the U.S. Department of Agriculture as a “food desert,” and residents — especially in poorer communities inside the Beltway — have long complained about a dearth of healthy grocery options.
Prince George’s County Executive Angela D. Alsobrooks (D), who says bringing healthy foods to the county is a top priority, sent a letter to United Natural Foods executives this spring requesting that the company take into account the well-being of residents and sell to another grocer if they close their stores. She has not received a response.
“We share the frustration of the community and the workers because we don’t have a lot of information either,” said Alsobrooks spokesman John Erzen. “This is a health issue . . . and we are talking about anywhere from 1,000 to 2,000 jobs that are in limbo, so we want to do all we can to make sure people keep their jobs.”
Prince George’s has had some highly publicized successes in attracting quality grocers to more affluent communities, including a Wegmans in Lanham and the launch of a 40,000-square-foot Whole Foods in Riverdale Park.
But residents in the poorest areas of the county have watched a different story unfold. Five Safeways inside the Beltway have closed since 2010, leaving the county’s most densely populated areas with just one Safeway supermarket, which opened in Hyattsville in 2016.
David Iannucci, who heads the county’s economic development corporation, said many of the overtures made by officials in Prince George’s to United Natural Foods have been met with silence. Executives at the publicly traded company are limited in what they can say, he added, because of nondisclosure agreements and federal regulations.
At the same time, Iannucci said the county is talking to other grocery chains and he is “cautiously optimistic that more than half of the 12 stores will be picked up by other grocery stores.”
He declined to provide more details, citing ongoing negotiations.
Beth Goldberg, a spokeswoman for Safeway, said the company does not have plans to move into any Shoppers stores. Giant Food spokeswoman Tori Partykevich said the company “is always looking for ways to better serve our local community” but declined to comment on the possibility of acquiring any Shoppers stores.
In the Washington suburbs, in addition to the stores in Prince George’s, there are three Shoppers locations in Montgomery County, two in Alexandria, four in Fairfax County and two in Prince William County. The rest are farther out in Maryland and Virginia.
At the Shoppers in New Carrollton, rumors circulate daily, and customers frequently ask for updates, said Kevin Freeman, 59, a butcher who has worked for the chain for 32 years.
He said he brushed aside murmurs that the chain would close when he first heard them about a year and a half ago. Now, he said, he is stuck between fighting alongside the union to keep Shoppers open and facing the reality that their efforts could fail.
“For our customers, it would be a big loss — most of them are elderly men and women who don’t drive,” Freeman said. “For me, it would mean looking for a new job.”
As he stood outside the Shoppers one recent day, Freeman greeted a steady stream of customers, many of them regulars.
“I don’t know what the situation is, but I hate it,” Lawrence Price said as he picked up his grocery cart. “Shoppers is Shoppers. When you come into the store, you smell fresh flowers and doughnuts.”
Price, who lives nearby and loves to cook, said he sometimes gets spices at the nearby international grocers or his meats at an Amish market. He loves Shoppers for the basics — and for its employees. “I know everybody . . . and everybody is nice.”
The Shoppers on Chillum Road closed in June, after executives decided not to renew their lease in the strip mall. Jo-Anne Butty, president of the neighboring Avondale/North Woodridge Citizens’ Association, said the closure “left a void,” especially because a Safeway and Giant also left the area in recent years.
Residents have reached out to United Natural Foods to no avail, Butty said, and have received no information about what could replace the Shoppers.
“We know the economy is changing, but our community needs to have input and quality and accessibility,” Butty said.
Members of the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 400 union who rallied outside the Shoppers in Coral Hills said they want an end to what they described as a prolonged “limbo” that has left them worried about mortgage payments, car notes and supporting their children.
Amber Stevens, who has worked at Shoppers for 11 years, pleaded at the microphone for information, saying it has been months since workers heard anything from United Natural Foods.
“We’ve got to find some answers,” she said, to cheers. “All we need are some answers.”
Prince George’s County Council member Jolene Ivey (D-District 5) said Shoppers has profited from its stores in Prince George’s over the years and owes it to the community not to leave without selling to another grocer.
“They have a responsibility,” she said at the rally, flanked by employees and state and local officials carrying signs that read, “Save our union jobs, fresh food and colossal doughnuts.”
Prince George’s State’s Attorney Aisha Braveboy (D), who worked with the Teamsters union in 2016 to stop the closure of a Safeway distribution center in Prince George’s, said she was prepared to help employees however she could.
“People have a relationship with their butcher, their florist,” Braveboy said. “It may be business to them, but it’s personal to us.”
The closest large grocery store to Shoppers in Coral Hills, where the rally was held, is the Safeway in the Benning Road neighborhood of Northeast Washington, two miles away.
Iannucci, who has a massive map of the food deserts in Prince George’s on an office wall, said making sure that there are decent grocery options in every neighborhood is vital.
He said he is not sure how much of the county would qualify as a food desert if all of the Shoppers locations were to close without being replaced by other grocers, but he imagines it could worsen the situation.
Among the stores that would be left in the Coral Hills strip mall: Family Dollar, McDonald’s and Subway.