Is H Street too good for Blimpie?

Illustration by Chad Martin

At the southwest corner of 8th and H Streets NE, there’s a fenced-in vacant lot, lightly covered in rubble, with a few weeds poking out. It’s an eyesore, but neighborhood residents and business owners say there’s something worse coming to the site: a Blimpie sub shop.

The news of the sandwich chain’s arrival is being met with the kind of ire usually reserved for halfway houses and adult-video parlors. At a June 4 D.C. Council hearing, Ward 6 Councilmember Sharon Ambrose introduced emergency legislation to stop the planned shopping development, which is also supposed to include a Foot Locker and a Shoe City.

Armed with a packet of constituent letters, Ambrose denounced the project as a misuse of public funds and a betrayal of community-planning priorities. When At-Large Councilmember Harold Brazil led a successful counterattack defending the chain, the anti-Blimpites dubbed him “Harold ‘Blimpie’s’ Brazil” and accused him of being bought by the meatball-sub lobby.

“It is hardly the kind of place that you’d take your parents to dinner,” sniffs resident Richard Layman.

All that the founders of Blimpie wanted to evoke was airships, according to the company’s Web site. Back in 1964, the story goes, high school pals Tony Conza, Peter DeCarlo, and Angelo Baldassare decided that the thickly stuffed sandwiches they were selling in Hoboken, N.J., looked like blimps, and the brand was born.

A brand identity, though, is a tricky thing to control. McDonald’s has seen its “Mc-” prefix come to connote soulless prefabrication. Wal-Mart’s name has become linked not only with a smile and a bargain but with all-consuming sprawl.

And Blimpie—with its wallpaper depicting schlubby customers and its penchant for mixing guacamole and mustard—has come to seem decidedly downscale. In a neighborhood where commercial development hasn’t kept pace with the influx of affluent homesteaders, that’s too much for some residents to bear.

As upwardly mobile H Streeters see it, the thoroughfare already has too many fast-food establishments. A McDonald’s sits near the corner of 8th and H, as do two locally owned carryouts that sell subs and Chinese food. It’s also true that sneakers are easy to come by in the area: A Sports Zone already occupies another corner of 8th and H Streets NE, and down the street is a Downtown Locker Room. But Blimpie, more than Foot Locker or Shoe City, has borne the brunt of the attacks.

Adding the sub shop and shoe stores to the intersection “will not add prestige to the street,” says Shannon Salb, who’s lived on G Street NE for the past six years. Nor, he says, will it attract other new businesses.

When he talks about putting something else on the site, though, he doesn’t mention replacing Shoe City with Kenneth Cole. Instead, he focuses on eating and drinking, on the prospect of “a high-end chain like Starbucks or Xando.” A coffee shop, he adds, would go nicely with the newly opened H Street Playhouse and the soon-to-be renovated Atlas Theater.

Anwar Saleem, president of the H Street Merchants Association, says he, too, would prefer a Starbucks, which he says offers “a better name brand” than Blimpie and “better food.”

“Blimpie’s doesn’t even rate against Subway,” he says.

So Saleem and Ambrose met with Starbucks executives earlier this month, hoping to woo them to the neighborhood. “I think having a Starbucks would make a statement about H Street,” Ambrose says.

Unfortunately, that statement wouldn’t be true. As far as the lords of the latte are concerned, H Street is not a Starbucks kind of place. In their meeting with Ambrose and Saleem, Saleem says, company reps said that H Street needs “more work on infrastructure and streetscaping and a better mix of businesses.” According to other officials at the meeting, Starbucks also thought the street was too dirty and unsafe.

Given the history of the site, it’s hard to see why H Street boosters are being so choosy. Neighboring businesses include Super Nails, Check N Go, and the J&V Pawn Shop. For years, the corner was occupied by a collection of dilapidated buildings. In 1997, the city gave the H Street Community Development Corporation (CDC) federal funds to buy the land and then demolish the buildings, over the protests of historic-preservation-minded residents. Two million dollars later, it was a vacant lot.

After the mayor’s office in April designated H Street part of its Main Streets revitalization program, the locals started dreaming of better things; instead, the CDC unveiled plans for two shoe stores and a Blimpie.

To the uplift-H Street crowd, the city seems to be working at cross purposes, lending them support with one hand and undermining them with the other. “This is not about Blimpie,” Ambrose says, referring to the current controversy. “It’s about the appropriateness of any fast-food place—Blimpie, Subway, McDonald’s, whatever—on that corner, anywhere on the street, given the goals of the Main Streets program and the kind of planning that has been going on.”

But is food served fast really the problem? It’s hard to picture anyone kicking up a similar fuss over the arrival of a fancy fast-food chain such as Chipotle or Panera. Substantively speaking, Blimpie Director of Marketing Ron Feigenbaum points out, even a Starbucks is basically a Blimpie with cocoa sifters.

“We are in the quick-serve restaurant category, as is Starbucks,” Feigenbaum says. “It’s perception, not reality. It’s like Tiffany’s and Zales: Both are selling diamonds.”

But perception—”brand prejudice,” Feigenbaum calls it—rules. Audrey Hepburn didn’t go to Zales. Blimpie’s slogan may be “the freshest of everything,” and it may tout Mediterranean flatbread and dolphin-safe tuna, but it still conjures images of rest stops and shopping-mall food courts.

Its far bigger rival, Subway, has managed to reinvent itself as a wholesome dining experience, thanks to a national TV campaign featuring formerly overweight student pitchman Jared Fogle. Subway, though, has the financial muscle that comes with having 16,000 franchises worldwide; Blimpie has only 2,500. And it’s not so easy to pitch healthy eating when you’re named “Blimpie.”

So on June 13, in a hands-on bit of image maintenance, Blimpie co-founder and CEO DeCarlo rushed down from New York for a neighborhood zoning meeting, bearing two trays of freshly made subs. Blimpie franchises, DeCarlo told the crowd, boast addresses in “prestigious office buildings” and “affluent suburbs.” Only the best materials, he said, go into building each Blimpie: “marble floors, beautiful laminates, and custom-printed vinyls.”

Blimpie foes were unimpressed. They barely picked at the subs (though they did make a big dent in DeCarlo’s supply of baked potato chips and Doritos), as the Blimpie discussion stretched on for two-and-a-half hours. And they didn’t much warm to the idea of the new sub shop.

“How did your market research justify another carryout on H Street?” demanded resident Leslie Thompson.

“I go where we can succeed,” DeCarlo replied, “where I don’t see 15 brand-name stores competing for your fast-food dollar.”

“We don’t want to see our H Street be a fast-food strip,” Thompson retorted.

The choice confronting the neighborhood, though, isn’t between a fast-food strip and an upscale shopping district: It’s between a fast-food strip and a strip full of nothing. Given those options, the H Street CDC is going for Blimpie, even if the neighbors think it isn’t classy enough.

Some residents can’t get over that symbolism. “I’d like to see a better mix of retailers,” Saleem complains, “something that’s right for the neighborhood 10 or 15 years from now. What message are we sending our kids—that our neighborhood is all about athletic footwear, beauty products, and carryouts?”

The message, in fact, would be that the neighborhood isn’t dead to commerce. So there’s no Starbucks mermaid smiling down on H Street NE, the way there is on U Street NW, Connecticut Avenue NW, and Wisconsin Avenue NW. Unlike Starbucks, Blimpie is planning to franchise to a D.C. resident, keeping profits in the neighborhood.

A gourmet-coffee outlet wouldn’t bring prosperity, only the appearance of prosperity. Blimpie foes seem to believe that the sound of steam rushing out of an espresso machine will be a siren call to consumers and investors alike.

Actually, the opposite is true: In D.C., chain coffee stores aren’t pioneers of urban renewal; they tend to follow development rather than spark it. Starbucks agreed to enter Columbia Heights only recently, with the development of the Tivoli Theatre. Starbucks is also planning to open a store in a strip mall on upper Georgia Avenue NW, according to news reports. The chain became more interested in the blighted corridor once Discovery Communications began building a headquarters just over the District line in Silver Spring.

Starbucks suits have their own philosophy about location selection. They like to pick spots they call “third places”—the “first” being home, the “second” being work, and the “third” being some comfortable place in between. H Street, as far as Starbucks executives are concerned, ranks fourth or lower.

But Blimpie wants to be there. Who cares if it brings cachet to go with its cappicola subs? If it makes it, more brand-name outlets may follow. Ultimately, the place may be more welcoming for the sorts of retailers that the anti-Blimpites want.

“Having a value-oriented business doesn’t blight a neighborhood,” Feigenbaum says. “I don’t think there’s a neighborhood we can’t fit into—brand prejudice aside.” CP

Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Illustration by Chad Martin.