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Don’t call it a food fight.
Over the past few months, a neighborhood controversy involving what’s long been known as the “Soviet Safeway” (for its lackluster offerings to date) has been brewing in Dupont Circle. The store wants to sell beer and wine, but a cohort of anti-capitalist objectors, school parents, and others are trying to block approval of the store’s liquor license, claiming that letting the Safeway sell alcohol would hurt small businesses along quaint 17th Street NW.
They also say alcohol sales at the supermarket could disturb “peace, order, and quiet” in the neighborhood and would remove store space that could otherwise be used for fresh fruits and vegetables. Some residents, it turns out, are even asking D.C. liquor officials to think about the children, as Ross Elementary School is just around the block from the store on R Street NW, and the school’s playground is accessible via the alley that runs behind it.
Never mind that there are liquor stores and grocery stores all over town in close proximity to schools. Meanwhile, apparatchiks of the Safeway say these arguments (ironically) sound a bit too socialist and anti-corporate. They want greater consumer choice for retail beer and wine than what the half dozen liquor stores within range of the Safeway currently offer, and more competitive pricing as well. Bars and restaurants line 17th Street too, they point out, and the sky hasn’t fallen.
Now—following a 4-3 neighborhood commission vote against the Safeway’s liquor license application in June—Dupont Circle residents are planning to discuss the issue at a “town hall” Monday night at an apartment located a block and half away from the store. Neighborhood commissioners will be on hand to record residents’ comments but will not be presenting on behalf of Safeway.
The Alcohol Beverage Control Board will consider the formal protests that have been filed against Safeway’s plans at the end of September. Although it’s possible that the neighborhood commission will reach a settlement agreement with the store before then and drop its protest in exchange for Safeway promising to provide certain community benefits, the Dupont Circle Citizens Association might continue to advance its own objections, which purport that there are just too many alcohol licensees in the area.
Others don’t agree that neighbors should have so much say in a private store’s mix of offerings. “At what point do we stop trying to exercise oversight of the individual decisions of private businesses?” says Jim Malec, a Foggy Bottom resident who used to live in Dupont Circle. “I understand and respect the desire to maintain community integrity by protecting the ability of local and independent businesses to thrive. However, the idea that we should approve or deny licenses based on our subjective opinions seems fundamentally unethical and incompatible with a fair market system.”
Many other grocery stores in the area—including Whole Foods, Harris Teeter, and Trader Joe’s—sell beer and wine. Yet some critics are using the occasion of Safeway’s liquor license application to advocate for fresher produce, fish, and other comestibles at the store. “If Safeway could expand those offerings, that would be ideal for the health of the community,” says neighborhood local Harriet Fields. “What will be lost and gained for the community?”
The store’s critics say beer and wine sales would harm nearby mom-and-pops like Cairo Liquor & Wine, Prego Again, Rosebud Liquor, Benmoll Liquors, and a handful of corner stores. About 600 people signed an opposition petition that Cairo has been pushing and that was submitted to the ABC Board in early June, local liquor blog Barred in DC reports.
In a statement, Safeway says the ANC hasn’t invited the company to the town hall meeting, but that it will continue to communicate with residents about the issue and any concerns. It adds that an ongoing interior remodeling of the store is almost complete, meaning patrons can now enjoy “fresh-cut fruit, new deli items, and more than 800” organic items.
In June, a Safeway representative told the ANC that alcohol would represent less than 4 percent of the store’s total stock. About a mile north, Safeway’s Columbia Road NW store sells beer and wine.
One thing that could be lost is customers’ business, or so some say. Deacon Maccubbin, who used to own the former Lambda Rising bookstore devoted to the LGBTQ community in Dupont Circle and lives in the neighborhood, says that he wouldn’t patronize the store anymore if the ABC Board ultimately grants Safeway a liquor license.
“The day the Soviet Safeway sells its first bottle of liquor will be the last day I’ll ever shop there,” he says. “We don’t need yet another liquor store in that block! We need fresh food, meats, seafood, the basics, including some whole grain and sugar-free options.”