Gone are containers of spoiled meat and moldy produce at the Safeway in Northeast DC’s East River Park shopping center—at least for now. On Thursday afternoon, the grocery store bustled with an unusual amount of activity as employees—some from other stores—pulled expired items from the shelves, neatened displays of fresh fruits and vegetables, and scrubbed refrigerator cases from sudsy buckets. Discolorations on the walls were painted. In the meat section, a corporate employee took note of the improvements, snapping photos of freshly-packaged beef.
“It’s good to see y’all finally here,” remarked one shopper.
The “super cleaning,” as Safeway calls it, comes in direct response to a recent surprise inspection by DC councilmember Vincent Gray. Last week, Gray assembled a small group of journalists ( and toured the two Safeway locations in his jurisdiction—the one in Easter River Park, and another near Alabama Avenue, Southeast—revealing expired meat, rotting produce, and lengthy checkout lines. The sibling groceries have operated for nearly 30 years but are the only two major supermarkets in the immediate area along with a Giant; a recent study from the D.C. Policy Center showed three-quarters of the food deserts in DC reside in Wards 7 and 8. Residents of the predominantly African-American neighborhoods have complained of such conditions, and worse, for years. Compare that to the “Social Safeway” in Georgetown, equipped with a temperature-controlled wine cave, free wifi, and not a browning piece of meat in sight.
As the East River Park Safeway was being sprayed and scrubbed, Gray was meeting across town with senior executives of Safeway and its parent company, Albertsons, to address concerns that have long-plagued his community. According to Janis Hazel, director of communications for Gray’s office, a similar group convened in April to outline improvements for the Ward 7 Safeway branches, including sanitation upgrades, better inventory, and extended hours. (Most DC Safeways close at midnight or run 24 hours, but Easter River Park slashed business from 7 AM to 9 PM due to safety concerns, according to the company). Safeway sent Gray’s office an action plan in May with plans to improve quality across the board.
“And here we are, three months later,” says Hazel. “We haven’t seen any of that in evidence. Safeway has a long way to go in terms of community relations and communications.”
Hazel, who’s also an advisory neighborhood commissioner, lives six blocks from the East River Park Safeway. Even before she owned a car, she’d take Metro or rent a Zipcar to travel across the river or into Maryland for her groceries.
“I refused to go to that store because of the poor sanitation and poor inventory,” says Hazel. “I decided that, eleven years ago, if you’re going to disrespect me this way, I’ll take my money elsewhere.” Even now, after ANC meetings at the nearby Dorothy I. Height Library, she and others will travel to Whole Foods on H Street, Northeast, for dinner and groceries.
“That’s a powerful statement, that we’d rather go outside our community than go across the parking lot,” says Hazel.
Councilmember Gray says he’s hopeful Safeway will address all of the customer service and produce complaints, and provide a good customer experience—though skepticism remains from his office.
Stephanie Ridore, Safeway’s director of government affairs, says the company has made a number of steps toward improvement. It’s hired a veteran district manager with 29 years of experience with the company, brought on additional labor at both Ward 7 stores, and deployed new scheduling technology in hopes of easing wait times at the checkout counters.
“Maintaining our commitment to the neighborhood will be an ongoing process of evaluation, adjustment, and learning from our customers’ feedback,” says Ridore, who urges customers to email Ward7@safeway.com with feedback.
Safeway’s super-clean seems to have purged many of the obvious differences between the East River Park store and those across the Anacostia. Walk around the literal squeaky-clean aisles, and you’ll see shelves neatly stocked with artisanal Fever Tree tonics, perky baskets of organic produce, and Rao’s Homemade pasta sauces. Still, problems remain.
“Can we get some help!” yells a customer at a checkout counter, as the lines inch forward.