It's Saturday night and 20 people are lined up on the sidewalk. Others cruise the parking lot for an open space. Those in line wear sporty dress and hopeful looks. A few tap their feet to a rockabilly tune by the lively quartet inside.
A nightclub? No, a grocery store. It's singles night at Fresh Fields in Bethesda, and the place is hopping.
Fruits and vegetables are piled high near the entrance, but there's no squeezing the melons tonight. The icebreakers, like the products, are wholesome: two massage therapists offering clothed massages on portable tables, a face-and-palm reader, chiropractic screenings, travel agents raffling a white-water trip, a sports doctor discussing his lowfat cookbook.
With the crowd as thick as organic honey--about 300 people--it's tough to check out all the booths. The store closed for business at 9 PM, and this event runs 9 to 11; by 9:40, the desk up front has run out of nametags.
The first hour feels a bit like a high-school dance: Guys lean against the produce bins checking out the women in line for a massage, trying to look interested but not too obvious.
Molly and Elaine, both in the line, get acquainted with Colleen, who is sharing her napkin full of desserts. The three have waited 20 minutes so far, but the mini cheesecakes and fruit tarts are yummy distractions.
Each Fresh Fields/Whole Foods Market runs its own special events, like cooking classes and kids' story hours. The Bethesda store holds a singles night once or twice a year.
Why are these events so popular? "It's a nonthreatening environment," says community liaison Pam Kahn. The place is clean and well lit, and no alcohol is served. Plus, she says, "The people who shop here care about interesting things--that's one thing they have in common. If you see someone you like, just walk up and ask them a question about the food."
That's exactly what George, tall and blond, seems to be doing near the salad items. Around 10:15 he introduces himself to Sue, a wavy-haired Floridian. They strike up an animated conversation, occasionally gesturing toward the produce.
A four-man blues band, the Moonlighters, plays on, and two women, friends from Gaithersburg, sway to the music. Tom, in his forties, says a few words to the nearer of them, who hands off her cup of coffee--and suddenly they're doing the two-step. People move back to give them room.
With more women than men here, the Georges and Toms have plenty of opportunity. Ages range from thirties to fifties. So, how many relationships have these singles nights produced?
"Several couples have told me they hooked up here," Kahn says. "I wanted to feature one couple in our newsletter, but they were too shy."
Shyness seems less of an issue the evening goes on, but the setting has both pluses and minuses. For every pair sipping samples of Honest Tea, an equal number of people seem to have given up on love in favor of scanning the shelves for granola and protein powder. How romantic can it be to watch a health-club trainer gauge your body fat--or someone else's?
Still, by 10:30, George and Sue are chatting away. Another potential twosome pores over the doctor's cookbook. A serious fellow in his forties is handing out fliers for the Men's Center of Greater Washington; thirtysomething Teresa looks him up and down before he disappears past a cereal display.
Half an hour later, it's all over. The band wraps up; the chiropractor gathers her charts and brochures. George ambles toward the door with Sue's business card in his pocket.
Colleen's friend Dana hops off the portable table in aisle one. "I don't think I met anyone special tonight," she says, "but I did get a good massage."
The next singles night at Bethesda's Fresh Fields, 5225 River Road, is scheduled for Friday, April 7. Cover is $10, of which $2 goes to Hospice Care. Call 301-984-4860 for details.