As a frequent user of many different kinds of bathrooms, I can tell you that grocery store facilities are a special breed: Often an afterthought, rarely clean, and usually shared between workers and customers. The ones in the Safeway on Piney Branch Road NW, though, stand out.

First you have to find them, way at the rear of the store, through swinging doors into a chaotic back-of-the-house area where food gets unpacked and dispatched to shelves. The two single rooms are barely enclosed from the rest of the area, and waiting for them puts you in the path of workers pushing carts to and fro. Inside, though it’s reasonably clean, fixtures are missing components, and taggers have marked up the walls.

Signs advise users to notify Safeway associates if there’s anything wrong with the bathroom, and apparently, they have been: Advisory Neighborhood Commission 4B has heard all sorts of complaints about their location and cleanliness since 2007. Safeway has been promising that the restrooms at the 30-year-old store were due for a renovation, but it’s been pushed off. Finally, the ANC invited Safeway spokesman Craig Muckle to address the issue at a commission meeting, but he said he’d rather do so in an executive session, saying that large public discussions had proven “counterproductive.” 

That did not make the local electeds happy. They fired off a letter to Safeway’s Eastern Division president decrying the discourtesy, and on Monday passed a resolution reiterating their request for improvements.

For his part, Muckle says he was busy on Monday, and that the “counterproductive” language was “poor choice of words.” But he still says the restroom issue doesn’t necessarily merit Safeway’s attendance at a public meeting, which is understandable: It sucks to stand in front of a bunch of angry neighbors when there’s not much you can do about how the higher-ups decide to spend their money. Patrons consider themselves entitled to spacious, immaculate restrooms while grocery shopping, but Safeway brass would say they’re under no obligation to provide them everywhere. It’s also easy, in a city with Safeways as deluxe as the one in Georgetown and as crappy as the one in Petworth, to feel that yours has been neglected (Muckle faces the same complaints east of the Anacostia river).

“It’s one thing if we’re a small business,” Muckle says. “But here, what I try to tell people is you have your Safeway and it’s the most important store for you. Unfortunately, corporate doesn’t see it that way, because they have 1,600 of these same stores all over the country…While we were well intentioned in trying to address the bathroom issue, it didn’t happen here.”

The other issue, of course, is that there’s little competition in the immediate neighborhood for peoples’ grocery dollars. If Wegmans does end up taking space at Walter Reed a few blocks north, I’m going to bet that the restrooms would get quite a bit more attention.

UPDATE, June 28 – Muckle sent out the following email to local officials on behalf of Eastern Division President Steve Neibergall:

First of all, we apologize to you and the other customers for the conditions of the restrooms at our Piney Branch store.  We know that this has been a longstanding issue in the community and we did not have a good plan when we constructed the pharmacy room which eliminated a restroom that had been readily available solely for our customers.  However, I can tell you that Mr. Neibergall approved a bathroom remodeling earlier this spring and that the construction plan will be executed very soon.

Right now, the permit we requested should be available for us to pick up by the end of the week and we have already identified a contractor for the job.  We expect the work to by the end of next week and anticipate the project to be completed within four to six weeks from commencement.  The quality of the facilities will be vastly improved and, once completed, each of the new restrooms will be able to accommodate three men and three women at any one time compared to the current status of one man and one woman.  This information has been conveyed verbally to the ANC with a formal written response to follow.

We look forward to the completion of the work and providing clean, modern restroom facilities for all customers who may need them.

Thank you for your comments and we hope that we have an opportunity to serve you and your family in the future.


Craig M. Muckle

Manager, Public Affairs and Government Relations

Safeway Inc.