Gray Takes Safeway to Task

Councilmember Gray inspects paper towels absorbing leakage from a refrigerator unit holding roast poultry at the East River Park Safeway. Photo: Elizabeth O'Gorek

The long hot days of August are not traditionally cluttered with business for politicians in the District. But Councilmember Vincent Gray has been busy pressing Safeway to make improvements to its two stores in Ward 7, at East River Park Shopping Center (322 40th St. NE) and Good Hope Marketplace (2845 Alabama Ave. SE). The two are the only full-service grocery stores in the entire ward, which has a population of more than 70,000.

Many customers have few or no alternatives to shopping at these stores. Those without vehicles do not have the option of taking their business elsewhere.

Customer complaints regarding conditions and service at the two Safeway stores were the subject of articles published in the March and April 2017 issues of East of the River. Customers described waiting in line for up to an hour and a half to pay for damaged or moldy produce. The poor service, lack of selection, and low quality of products were often perceived as evidence of disrespect for customers and the community.

In April, a Safeway executive met with Councilmember Gray and promised to improve the shopping experience at the two stores. In June, he provided Gray with a Ward 7 action plan that outlined improvements to customer service, cleanliness, checkout wait times, and product assortment that were to be made on a 30-, 60-, and 90-day timeline.

Four months after the initial meeting, Gray said he was still hearing complaints about the stores. This prompted him to conduct a surprise inspection to see the situation for himself.

On Thursday, Aug. 17, Gray visited the two stores unannounced. He found long lines and few open registers, equipment in disrepair, moldy produce, and discolored meat. “This says it was packed on the 16th,” he said, holding up a dripping brown package of New York strip steak in the East River Park store. “What could have happened that it was packed on the 16th and it looks like this today?”

Councilmember Vincent Gray speaks with Jerome Jackson, assistant manager at the Safeway at the East River Park Shopping Center, on Aug. 17. Gray said that the goals to improve the shopping experience at the two Safeway stores in Ward 7 have not been met. Photo: Elizabeth O’Gorek

Frequent customer Brian McLaughlin looked on as Gray inspected the store. McLaughlin lives down the street and comes as many as two or three times a day. He was clear about his concerns, saying, “The issue is the service, and having to wait in line for up to 30 minutes just to pay for one thing.” He said he asked the manager about it and was told there were a limited number of hours for which management could schedule employees.

Gray said that Good Hope Road Safeway, where he regularly shops, was slightly better. But still he found only three open checkout lanes, with long lines containing mostly seniors waiting to purchase groceries. “If Safeway wants to be a respected part of the retail community, then they have to respect the people who they want to serve in the community,” said Gray.

McLaughlin was sure Gray’s inspection would make a difference. “Just seeing him in here, he’s so good,” he said.

It seems that at least in the short term McLaughlin was right. Immediately following Gray’s inspections, Safeway called to request another meeting with the councilmember for Aug. 24. At the meeting, a number of Safeway executives met with Gray, including the president of Safeway’s eastern division, Dan Valenzuela, and the director of the government affairs division, Stephanie Maxwell Ridore.

Across town, as the meeting was taking place, the two Ward 7 stores underwent what Safeway calls a super cleaning. The Washingtonian reported that staff scrubbed refrigerator units, painted over discolorations, and pulled expired items from shelves in direct response to Gray’s two inspections.

Beth Goldberg, Safeway’s senior manager of community and public affairs, said that the super-cleanings were standard procedure in the stores. On social media, community responses to notices of the cleanings provided by East of the River appeared to indicate surprise and a desire for further efforts.

“Bout damn time! Couldn’t stand taking my mother there. I stayed in the car!” said one.

“It is a start,” said another.

However, after the meeting, Gray said that he could not give assurance that improvements were imminent. “They claimed much of what they gave us in terms of a correction plan has been implemented,” he said. “It is very hard to see.”

The Safeway executives, however, expressed an eagerness to continue improvements. Following the meeting, Ridore said via email, “We know we have work to do to overcome the challenges surrounding these stores, and we are pleased to have Councilmember Gray’s support in that effort.”

She was also quick to point out the challenges facing management of the two stores, saying that loss of inventory in Ward 7 is nearly double that of other division stores. Vandalism and violence are also a problem, as are staffing and security.

“While turnover in the grocery industry is usually higher than other industries, we’re finding that turnover rates in those stores can be as high as 150 percent, akin to replacing the entire staff nearly every six months,” she said.

Issues of safety were raised by East River Park assistant manager Jerome Jackson during the inspection of the store. He said that he had to deal with people drinking alcohol in the aisle, hiding in bathrooms after closing, and behaving aggressively toward staff.

The East River Park Safeway is currently without a manager. Gray said he was told at the Aug. 24 meeting that the store manager, whom he had hoped to speak with during his Aug. 17 inspection, “had been threatened and was in fear for his safety and had not reappeared since.”

Another issue faced by customers and raised by Gray in his meeting with the Safeway executives is the recent change in hours at the East River Park location. During the second week of August, its daily hours were reduced by two, with little notice to the community. The change from a 6 a.m. open and 10 p.m. close to a 7 a.m. open and a 9 p.m. close made it even more difficult for residents to purchase groceries.

Gray said that he asked Valenzuela to rescind the change, but the eastern regional president told them he could not do that because the store was not sufficiently profitable. “He would not make a commitment to do that, but he wasn’t taking it off the table. You can interpret that however you wish to interpret that,” said Gray.

Mold is visible on strawberries sold at the East River Park Safeway. Photo: Elizabeth O’Gorek

Where Are the Other Retailers?
Gray said that Safeway has made it clear that it is aware that it is the only grocery option in the area. “Some of what we heard in the beginning, which I didn’t find acceptable at all, was ‘We’re two stores, at least we’re here, where are the other retailers?’ Well, they’re not here, you guys are here,” he said he told them, “and we certainly have expectations.”

Gray said that while addressing issues at the two Safeway stores is necessary, the way to address them in the long term is with increased competition. “In the absence of competition, they will continue to get away with the kinds of things that they’ve gotten away with,” he said.

It was then-Mayor Gray’s desire to create additional retail competition in the East End that spurred his 2012 deal with Walmart to build five stores in the District. The retail giant built and opened three stores in more affluent areas of the District, before backing out of the two that were to be located in Ward 7 in 2016. Gray says the office of the attorney general will have to decide if the District will file suit.

Gray has not given up. He has introduced no less than four pieces of legislation intended to facilitate retail competition. The East End Health Care Desert, Retail Desert and Food Desert Elimination Act of 2017 and the East End Grocery and Retail Incentive Program Tax Abatement Act of 2017 had public hearings in the spring. The former bill allows the District to construct buildings and lease them to retail operators for a nominal fee in exchange for a long-term commitment to the site. Companies who break that commitment would then be obligated to pay prorated costs back to the city.

“To me, it’s an enormous incentive to get people who otherwise might not come, to come to the East End of the city,” Gray said. “We want to make it as easy as we possibly can to serve people who otherwise might not be served, or who otherwise haven’t been served. The door is open.”

Needs to Be a Stir
Gray says that his efforts to expand East End retail, especially grocers, will not lead to a reduction in his efforts to hold Safeway accountable for store conditions. “People are very insulted. They’re upset about the way they’ve been treated,” Gray said in an interview. “They realize that they’ve been treated poorly, and they want to see the pressure to continue on Safeway.”

Gray said that he was more than willing to do that. “That’s the important message from all of this – this is not a one-off experience. This is what will be a continuing effort to try to improve the quality of the retail experience, especially the food shopping experience for people who live on the East End.”

At the Aug. 24 meeting, Gray said that the Safeway executives expressed dismay at what they called the “negative media coverage” initiated by Gray’s surprise inspections, saying it might make things more difficult. But Gray said he will continue to press Safeway for improved service and accountability. His inspections caused quite a stir, both among customers surprised by his presence and Safeway management who said that cameras would not be permitted in the stores.

Gray continued his inspections that day, refusing to dismiss the cameras. “There needs to be a stir,” he said.