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A longtime Logan Circle grocer fights an uphill battle against Fresh Fields.

If not for the advertisements that hang pathetically above the truck docks and along the sidewalks, the casual observer might never give the Food Rite Metro Supermarket at 1441 P St. NW a second glance. The store—just a stone’s throw from Logan Circle—boasts a row of tractor-trailer docks along its façade, and the large red letters that announce its presence have weathered and broken with age. The Food Rite Metro is often mistaken for an annex of the auto garage that sits adjacent to it, but the market has been in the neighborhood since 1960, when Safeway Inc. (then the largest chain of supermarkets in the country) built it.

Directly across the way, at 1440 P St. NW, sits Metro’s brick, glass, and green-neon nemesis—Fresh Fields. Since it opened last November, the Whole Foods giant has become a community magnet, drawing in not only food shoppers but coffee kibitzers and neighborhood types dawdling over their java and newspapers.

There are no loungers across the street at Metro—and no booths for coffee klatches. There is, instead, a small but steady stream of customers like Andrea Bakayoko walking in and out of the shop’s doors, which are hidden down a driveway that many mistake for an alley.

Bakayoko says she always shops at Metro, which is closer to her apartment and cheaper than either Fresh Fields or the Safeway at 1701 Corcoran St. NW. “The good thing about this place,” Bakayoko observes as she shops, “is you can get ethnic-oriented seasonings and pigs’ feet and stuff like that.” She says she has noticed that Metro is making an earnest attempt to remain competitive. “Since Fresh Fields has opened up, they’ve improved. Everything is categorized now. You know where stuff is at. Displays are better. The meat looks better, too.”

Bakayoko has not eschewed Fresh Fields entirely, but she is incredulous at how short her food dollar comes up there. “Me and my husband go to buy groceries over there and come out, easily—without meat included—and it’s, like, $60.” Today, when she finishes making her purchases of meats and name-brand snacks, Bakayoko heads across the street to Fresh Fields, where she plans to put together a salad to go with dinner.

The respective meat sections provide a handy comparison between Metro and Fresh Fields. In addition to more traditional cuts of meat in a long, refrigerated counter against the back wall, Metro has set aside an entire case specifically for meat that more blatantly reminds the buyer that it was once alive: ox tails, pork stomachs, and pigs’ ears. Across the street at Fresh Fields, cuts of meat that are as suitable for framing as for eating reside in well-lit displays and cases—perfect veal cutlets at $11.99 per pound and cute little rock Cornish hens priced at $3.50 each.

As Bakayoko browses the Fresh Fields meat section, a sample jockey is doling out Bell & Evans chicken wings. She gives one a try, and she is impressed. “You really can tell the difference between this stuff. It’s because of the way they’re grown or something. But I don’t have any problem with that because I don’t have to be that specified in my diet.” She politely thanks the wing lady and moves along without even checking the price.

In 1977, nearly a decade after the riots that triggered the area’s economic decline, Safeway decided to pull out of the community. A Washington Post article noting Safeway’s decision to sell to Han Yang Cho, a former lieutenant colonel in the Korean Marine Corps and former assistant naval attaché# at the Korean Embassy, quoted the new owner’s assertion that the store would be “very competitive.”

When large-scale competition finally came for Metro 23 years later, it had the added disadvantage of being engineered by the community that Metro purports to serve. Community activists lobbied hard for the Fresh Fields, seeing it as an anchor for a broader revival of Logan Circle.

Cho and his market have had smaller-scale difficulties, as well. In April 1999, customer Lynette Lamons accused Food Rite Metro employees of forcibly strip-searching her and her 2-year-old daughter on suspicion of shoplifting because they were black. Lamons and her attorneys, Malik Zulu Shabazz and Donald M. Temple, filed suit for $16 million in D.C. Superior Court, alleging a violation of the D.C. Human Rights Act.

At the time of the lawsuit’s filing, Cho denied the incident. Temple says that the suit has been settled, but he will not talk about the exact terms. “The case was finally settled in discovery,” Temple continues, “but the supermarket has a way to go in sensitivity to the black community. I mean, the store guard has even told us he’s told to monitor black customers. Still, I think the suit was very instructive for them.”

Tracking down the owner of Food Rite Metro for a chat about that lawsuit—or business in general—isn’t easy. An attempt to arrange an interview by phone was confounded by dueling accounts of Cho’s whereabouts. (He was “on vacation” for a month in one and due in the next day in the other.)

A stakeout on a recent Saturday morning began with equally disappointing results. Two men arrived at 8:30 a.m. to prepare for the 9 a.m. opening. When asked if Mr. Cho would be in that day, one of the men, clearly annoyed, advised the reporter to try back at 10 a.m. Later, after the appointed hour, Cho had indeed arrived; he was the other man who had opened the store that very morning.

It’s clear that Cho is not a man who cares for publicity, negative or positive. When asked about Lamons’ case, Cho claims ignorance and deflects further questioning. Asked what steps he is taking to remain competitive in the face of his new neighbor, he replies that his business has declined a bit since Fresh Fields’ arrival but that he is not worried about Metro’s future.

Community leaders like ANC 2F treasurer Barbara Asare-Bediako are convinced that Metro is living on borrowed time. “It doesn’t matter if they carry things that Fresh Fields doesn’t; they have to have standards,” says Asare-Bediako. “They just don’t care about the community. Community businesses hire from the community; these little markets never do that. They hire their family and friends. They’re not going to be around for long; the handwriting’s on the wall.”

ANC 2F Chair David Stephens concurs; in his opinion, Metro’s days are dwindling. He notes that the ANC has already approved development of the lot directly behind the market, which faces Church Street NW, and says that the lot’s owner, Metropolis Development Corp., also retains the option to buy the lots occupied by Metro and the adjacent Duron paint store. “As long as the economy of the area continues to grow,” says Stephens, “I’m sure they will develop those lots into residential and commercial properties.”

Stephens is less eager than his colleague to see Metro go, however. “We need small places like these in our neighborhoods. My hope is that, if these little corner stores are displaced, others will take their place.”

Bakayoko, too, hopes that Metro will keep its niche, however tiny, in the neighborhood. “I think, if you really wanted it, [Fresh Fields] would go out of their way to get something for you. They are going to do all they can to get you to come over there. But homeboy [Metro] over here is good, too, because the prices are low. I haven’t had any problems, except sometimes his meat didn’t last as long as I would have liked it to in my refrigerator.

“But,” she adds wryly, “I do have a very small refrigerator.” CP