The mural that extends across the walls of the People Garden Community Health Market on Mount Pleasant Street lays out owner Jeff Brechbuhl’s vision in vibrant primary colors. But the harmonious cartoon imagerysmiling fruits and vegetables helping a racially diverse group of farmers at harvest timedoesn’t mesh with the reality of Brechbuhl’s three years running an organic-food store, a project that could come to an end as soon as next week.
“My gripe is more with the neighbors. They didn’t come in here,” the 33-year-old Brechbuhl says, pausing for a second amid the store’s ample supply of empty baskets. “Well, maybe once or twice.”
Brechbuhl, a seven-year Mount Pleasant resident who also operates the Mount Pleasant Community Development Center, plans to close the retail arm of People Garden as soon as current inventory runs out in favor of an Internet-based grocery-delivery business. He says that after a brief post-opening surge in July 2000, his earnings steadily declined. Brechbuhl tried, he says, to offer an array of services: He included a deli counter, sold smoothies, and stocked items on the basis of special requests. But as the People Garden tried to be all things to all people, he says it managed to please very few.
“I sold maybe four out of every 48 jars of organic baby food,” Brechbuhl says. Then, after he stopped making new batches: “A woman yelled at me for not having baby food.”
In Mount Pleasant, it seems that along with the anger, there’s been a good amount of apathy toward the People Garden. “I’ve only been in there once, and it seems like they were already in their declining phase,” says 26-year-old Brian Pelowski. “There are so many other cool places in the neighborhood,” says Brian Aaron, 30, who adds that the business is “too yuppie.”
Brechbuhl says that even the most well-meaning customers didn’t do enough to keep the store open. “These two just said, ‘We’re sorry to see you go,’” he says, referring to a pair of just-departed shoppers. “Well, you’re just buying some bulk spices, which are only $3.”
Brechbuhl has evidence that the dissatisfied browsers and the micro-purchasers have been steering clear of the People Garden, and toward 14th and P Streets NW. On recycling days, he says, distinctive green-and-brown Whole Foods bags line the sidewalks of Mount Pleasant. “A lot of the neighborhood has seen us as the convenience natural-foods store when they don’t feel like driving to Whole Foods,” he says.
Brechbuhl claims that he doesn’t begrudge the health-food supermarket its success, but he does think Whole Foods is overly aggressive against competition and doesn’t pass on savings to customers. Juliette Tahar, a macrobiotic chef who rents out the People Garden kitchen, pops out to register additional complaints. “You go in [Whole Foods] and half of that stuff is not organic. Everything is full of sugar. It’s like Safeway with a better label,” she says.
Sarah Kenney, mid-Atlantic marketing director for Whole Foods, says, “Whole Foods is obviously a business, but certainly we have sadness if anyone who’s also in the business of selling natural foods isn’t making it.”
Scott Nash, who owns the Rockville-based independent grocery chain My Organic Market, says competition with Whole Foods separates the organic wheat from the chaff. In 1990, two months after Nash opened his first store, Fresh Fields (now Whole Foods) moved in across the street. “It put a hurting on us, but I weathered the storm,” he says. “[Whole Foods] will come to the area, annihilate the competition more or less, and take the market,” Nash says. “But they expand the market over time. If [Whole Foods] had never come on the scene, we would never be able to have three stores.”
Nash thinks it’s possible for Brechbuhl to find his niche in the marketplace, but he isn’t sure a delivery service is the way to go. He thinks a high-quality organic restaurant is what the D.C. area really needs. Brechbuhl, however, is bullish on his local-produce deliveries. He hopes the program, which serves 90 customers per week, will allow him to collect a salary for the first time since he started the People Garden.
Brechbuhl refuses to concede defeat to the health-food superstores. In a message sent out to the People Garden e-mail list, Brechbuhl describes the switch to a delivery business as a potential “creative solution to survive against the ever-expanding Whole Foods.” Later in the same message, he promises that People Garden’s “grocery prices will match or beat Whole Foods’ prices.”
While he’s getting the new company off the ground, Brechbuhl has cut his workforce from a high of eight staffers (who were all paid a living wage) to one: Along with owning the store, he works at the deli counter, runs the register, and bags purchases. On one Friday afternoon, Brechbuhl says he has sold $21 worth of Tahar’s rice burgers and zucchini-and-leek soup by noon. The one customer who enters the store between 11 a.m. and noon asks Brechbuhl for a sandwich.
“We don’t have sandwiches anymore,” he says.
With orders down to one a week, the once-full straw buckets of produce are now nearly empty, as is a freezer that once held vegan dessert topping and Boca burgers. Supplements and teas are listed at 50 percent off, and the metal wheatgrass machine sits idle next to the cash register, for sale. Every day for the past few weeks, Brechbuhl has put a “Today’s Special” sign in front of the store with “Huge Sale” handwritten in big chalk letters. But, he says, even liquidating his assets hasn’t been trouble-free: “Every day, somebody wipes it off.” CP