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Dean & DeLuca’s future is bleak. But when it opened it was a game-changer.

Update: Dean and DeLuca announced on July 23 that its Georgetown location will close on Aug. 1. “Dean & DeLuca will focus on its flagship store located on Prince Street in New York city while it reassesses how to transform its business model to address challenges that are facing many brands in the sector,” a representative for the company said. 

The first time I ever went to a Dean & DeLuca, I did not know what harissa was. I was in college. I had never heard of a hen of the woods mushroom. I had no idea that salt could cost $40.

I remember walking through the Georgetown market, in its historic brick building, and looking at all the cheeses and smoked fish and exciting ingredients — not that I even knew what to do with half of them, at the time. I remember marveling: This is where fancy people buy their groceries. I think I bought one of the prepared salads, displayed behind glass in ceramic bowls. For less than $20, Dean & DeLuca made me feel like I could be a fancy person, too.

The decline of Dean & DeLuca: Why premium grocers are biting the dust

So that’s why, when the New York Times reported on Wednesday that the specialty grocer was in grave financial trouble, fancy and non-fancy people alike were distraught. The future is uncertain for its remaining U.S. stores, in New York, the District and Honolulu. Even Dean & DeLuca Stage, a high-design cafe concept that opened only a few months ago in New York, has closed, the Times reported.

Giorgio DeLuca and Joel Dean opened the first Dean & DeLuca in 1977 in New York’s SoHo neighborhood, and it went on to change how Americans shopped for specialty food. Many of its imported and precious ingredients, at the time rare and perhaps experimental, have grown up to become household names. The minimalist decor of open wire shelving — then an innovation — is a standard cool look for retail of all types now. The appeal of Dean & DeLuca has always been its European quality, presented with American excess.

“The store is stocked for a food fancier’s ‘what if’ games,” wrote Phyllis Richman for The Post in 1979. “What if you could choose from 40 French goat cheeses? Five kinds of dried mushrooms in bulk? A dozen different clam and oyster knives? Fresh truffles and fresh quail eggs and fresh mayonnaise and fresh plums in winter and Russian pashka when it is not even Easter?”

Dean & DeLuca claimed to be the first store in the United States to sell radicchio, balsamic vinegar and sun-dried tomatoes. It earned the nickname “The Museum of Fine Food.” The company’s immaculate displays and overflowing cases of prepared food have gone on to influence mainstream grocers.

Dean & DeLuca’s style became “the basics of where other high-end retailers would end up going,” said Phil Kafarakis, president of the Specialty Food Association. “When you see the Wegmans format today, if you’ve ever been to Publix, those grocers, I think, would tell you that they emulated some of that early in the day.”

The store was also known for its impeccable customer service.

“The people who served you behind those cases were extremely knowledgeable. Today, most of that information comes from an app,” said Kafarakis. “These guys, back then, it was on the top of their head — they immediately told you the story of where the product came from, they’d give you a little taste. There was a whole romance.”

As it was for me, the grocer became many people’s gateway to fine food and fancy ingredients. Shortly after the Washington store opened in 1993 — the brand’s first outside New York — Chris Carter was working at his first job on Capitol Hill. He recalled via Twitter message that his girlfriend at the time had heard about Dean & DeLuca and was eager to try it. So one night, before they headed to a concert in Virginia, he “spent like 1/4 of my monthly take home pay (about $100) on a picnic dinner for a night at Wolf Trap for us — olives, fruit, cheese, deli meats and spreads and bread.”

“I felt like this was one of my first real grown-up meals and dates,” said Carter, now 53 and a lobbyist for Lehigh University. “I remember thinking, why don’t I eat like this every day?

Other customers recalled their favorite things about the store. A French expat would go there for a taste of home. It was, for one woman, the only place to find Aleppo pepper — “years before [London restaurateur and cookbook author Yotam] Ottolenghi made it a pantry ‘staple.’ ” There were the fancy mac and cheese, the chocolate eggs, the rainbow of salads. The kitchen tools that lasted decades.

The company became a beloved pop culture touchstone, too. On “Felicity,” the title character, played by Keri Russell, worked at Dean & DeLuca as a barista while attending the fictional “University of New York” (though she often spent her working hours flirting with her crush, Ben). The 1993 film “The Night We Never Met” features Matthew Broderick as a Dean & DeLuca cheese counter employee. It was also a good place for celebrity spotting — both in New York and Washington. In the early days of the SoHo store, you might run into the artist Donald Judd, but as the neighborhood changed, such actors as Meg Ryan and Sarah Jessica Parker shopped there. Plenty of people have experienced the random Dean & DeLuca celebrity sighting, whether it was Dave Chappelle or Julian Schnabel or Owen Wilson.

But the company, which was bought by Thailand-based Pace Development in 2014 for $140 million, has had its missteps. At the time of Pace’s acquisition, there were 42 stores — but according to the New York Post, by 2018 that number dwindled to 18 as the company faced lawsuits from suppliers who claimed they were stiffed. The company abandoned sponsorship deals and withdrew from several of its leases.

On Thursday morning, the Georgetown Dean & DeLuca was a shadow of its former self. Cheese cases were half-full, and the charcuterie case had only seven options where there was once a bounty. Half of the prepared foods case, once brimming with salads and fish made in house, was bare. Three chicken pot pies remained in the freezer case, and exactly 12 jars of $29 Luxardo cherries were on a shelf. There were only five baguettes, one sourdough boule and three jars of $30 white truffle sea salt. Other assorted products had been pushed to the front of the shelves: A few bottles of Runamok Maple Syrup. A single gold-wrapped bottle of Anfosso olive oil, imported from Italy. Twenty boxes of imported French Le Puy lentils, for $14 apiece. There were signs around the store that read: “Please pardon our appearance as we prepare for renovations.”

There were still pastries from Baltimore-based Patisserie Poupon in the cases, but the company owes about $10,000, owner Joseph Poupon said. “We’ve been doing business with them for over 20 years,” said Poupon, who said he has “kind of given up” on getting the past-due money and now requires payment upon delivery for any products Dean & DeLuca orders. “If we could get something, it would be great. We’re a small company.”

Perhaps in an attempt to make the shelves seem more full, out-of-season products were stocked — or maybe the company was just hoping that people would buy leftover chocolate Easter eggs and holiday turkey brine in July. Nothing was on sale. I tried to order a ham and brie sandwich but was politely informed that the store had no brie. When a Dean & DeLuca runs out of brie, you know things are really bad.

An employee, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media, said the store was not going to close. When asked about the bare shelves, he gave this reporter a pained look. “We’re having challenges,” he said.

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