When the Secret Safeway closes this Saturday, it will scan out a chapter for both the grocery store chain and the District of Columbia. Outsiders who spend any significant amount of time in D.C. may pick up on the odd attachment and folklore that Washingtonians have built around the Safeway brand. Giant may be the homegrown grocery chain, but it is the California-based Safeway franchise that lends itself to pet nicknames among locals.
The Secret Safeway
The Secret Safeway was but one of nearly a dozen grocery stores in Washington rechristened by local shoppers. The Social Safeway, the Grayway, the UnSafeway and the Soviet Safeway (sometimes known as the GayWay) are directional markers empllyed in local language by many Washingtonians. “Yes, there is a Payless Shoe Store in Adams Morgan. It’s right next to the Sandinista Safeway.”
While no urban historian has tracked the definitive origin of local Safeway nicknames, it is commonly believed that the Secret Safeway partly earned its name for two reasons. First, at 20th and S Streets, NW it was tucked into a residential corner of Dupont Circle that wasn’t frequented by commercial pedestrian traffic. Second, the only indication that a grocery store slept inside its plastered-up windows was a red awning that carried the nondescriptive name “Townhouse” in small, white letters.
Even Safeway Wouldn’t Tell You That This Was a Safeway Store
The brand name “Townhouse” was an attempt in the 1970s by Safeway to market itself to urban apartment dwellers. According to the company, the Secret Safeway at 20th & S Streets was but one of several Townhouse markets that Safeway experimented with in Washington, D.C. (along with a similar experiment in San Francisco under the brand name “Bon Appétit”). While Safeway largely discontinued its experiment with the Townhouse brand, the Secret Safeway literally remained under the Townhouse banner. It was only at checkout, where shoppers would be given a Safeway-branded grocery bag, that the store let on that it was part of the national chain. Even Safeway wouldn’t tell you that this was a Safeway store.
Slightly larger than two urban 7-11s, the Secret Safeway felt more like a super-sized Manhattan bodega than a grocery store. It carried mostly basics; canned goods, cleaning supplies, some produce, a few birthday cards, and oddly placed items like confetti party poppers. Items were often overpriced, and consumers were encouraged to use their Safeway discount cards at the register despite the fact that the Secret Safeway never participated in the discount card program (using your card at the Secret Safeway was virtually pointless). Yet, despite inflated prices and an early closing time of 10:00pm, the Secret Safeway inspired a devoted following that drove a brisk business.
Safeway stopped restocking the shelves at its 20th/S Street location during its final week, leaving its shelves 90% empty in its final days. With only a few boxes of Wheaties, tandori mix, and rubber gloves remaining, shoppers weren’t left with much.
“I just heard that the Secret Safeway on 20th is closing. WTF? Really?” tweeted popular Washington DJ Shea Van Horn when the news leaked on July 13 that Safeway would be closing the store. “Where am I going to get whole roast chickens for $5 on Fridays now??!!” Despite its high prices, the Secret Safeway always discounted its chickens.
Apart from reduced-price poultry, the Secret Safeway was known for its other quirks. There was the homeless man who hung around outside the entrance every day, and who knew many of the patrons by name. On nice days, he would sell books on the sidewalk out front. In bad weather, the employees of the Secret Safeway would set up a shelf for him to sell his books inside. He evenutally would become a dog-walker and handyman for many of the Secret Safeway’s shoppers. The store was also small enough that it became a virtual, if less sordid, Payton Place, where both patrons and employees knew the personal business of the other. “Where’s your rice cakes?” a cashier once asked me. “I forget names, but I always remember what our customers buy. You like rice cakes, energy drinks and Trident gum. But, I don’t see any rice cakes today.”
The Real World Always Ruins the Fun for Everyone
When the MTV show The Real World moved into a house directly across from the Secret Safeway, some local patrons became visibly uncomfortable. The attention MTV gave the store, with its cameras and sound crews recording the frequent shopping trips by housemates, wasn’t always welcomed by shoppers. To them, the Secret Safeway was their secret. When someone would ask directions to the Secret Safeway, locals were known to respond “I can’t tell you. It’s a secret.” Some were joking. Many were not.
It’s easy to dismiss dismay over the closing of a grocery store in a mixed middle/upper class neighborhood. After all, all of Anacostia lacked a national grocery chain until Safeway – after years of abandonment – reopened a store there in recent years. Yet, the sudden closing of the Secret Safeway impacts more than the local shopping patterns. It closes a cultural touchstone and leaves its employees with uncertainty as to their future. “We don’t know what we’re going to do,” one cashier told me soon after the news was announced. “I guess I’ll try to get a job at the Safeway in Adams Morgan, but they haven’t told us much.”
Safeway didn’t return calls by the time this story was filed. It is unclear what will replace the store, but rumors swirl among staff and residents. “I heard a sushi restaurant,” said one patron, although no news reports have confirmed what Safeway will do with the property which sits underneath an office building that houses – among other things – a charter elementary school. Members of the seemingly all-knowing Dupont Circle Advisory Neighborhood Commission (ANC) didn’t know much of what was going on when contacted by BYT either.
“They don’t tell us much,” said one cashier. “Just something about the real estate, but that’s all.” For the Secret Safeway, even its closing is cloaked in secrecy.
photos by Aineki Traverso