Housing Complex

The Organic Verses

There were just two shoppers at the Yes! Organic Market in Fairlawn last Friday afternoon. Entire aisles of refrigerated shelves were empty and dark, never to be refilled.

“This is the healthiest place to go,” said Lachuna Johnson, 24, who lives near Good Hope Road SE in Anacostia. “The other places have more artificial food. Today, how kids grow up, they eat a lot of fatty foods, they get obese. Stores like this really help.”

Soon, Johnson will have to find somewhere else to shop. Owner Gary Cha plans to close Yes!’s struggling Fairlawn location in early December, ending the two-plus-year run of his only store east of the Anacostia River, despite a $900,000 grant from the city.

The demise of Yes! is inconvenient for the store’s few regular shoppers. But for neighborhoods in the eastern part of the District, the implications could be much more profound.

“I think that it’s unfortunate that the residents who were asking for this type of retail service didn’t show up in great numbers,” says Derrick Woody, who helped arrange the city’s grant for Yes! while working in the Office of the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development, “because it does set a precedent for other retailers who are looking into that market.”

The historically poor area has seen some recent successes. To the south of Fairlawn, Anacostia’s second business incubator is opening this Thursday, joining an increasingly vibrant strip of galleries and shops that are slowly filling in that neighborhood’s many empty storefronts. To the north, at Minnesota Avenue and Benning Road NE, Donatelli Development is working on a big mixed-use building to mirror its developments in Columbia Heights, adjacent to the new Department of Employment Services headquarters. Two planned Walmart stores east of the river could reshape the area’s commercial landscape, for better or worse.

But retailers, developers, and brokers who had an eye on locations in wards 7 and 8 might think twice now. After all, here was a thriving grocery chain with six successful D.C. locations west of the river and one in Hyattsville. The store’s model was built largely on the idea that by moving to underserved areas, it could gain a reliable customer base without facing grueling competition. And it had worked in two other neighborhoods once thought to be unsuited to higher-end shops.

“In Petworth and Brookland, when we opened the stores there, they were surprised we didn’t put any metal bars on the windows,” Cha says.

Those successes were all achieved without city grants. But east of the river, even with nearly a million dollars in government backing and a dearth of other nearby grocery options, the store couldn’t get off the ground. What reasonable person wouldn’t conclude that the area can’t yet support this kind of retail?

Well, just about everyone close to the project. The building’s developer, city officials, D.C.-area brokers, and Cha himself all insist that the Fairlawn store’s shortcomings were unique, the product of its particular business plan or the difficulty of accessing its location, just east of the John Philip Sousa Bridge on Pennsylvania Avenue SE. Retail east of the Anacostia still has a bright future and strong investment potential, they maintain, and the city should continue to spend money to help it along.

All evidence indicates that they’re right. But will the people with the power to reshape the city’s eastern neighborhoods listen?

***

Cha is heartbroken by his store’s closing. “I feel bad about letting people down east of the Anacostia,” says Cha, who opened his first Yes! in Adams Morgan in 1983, “because they were very excited, as I was, to be able to bring the first organic market east of the river. People always talk about not having enough access to healthy food options. We did provide that for two and a half years, and I guess it’s my lack of skill, or whatever that is.”

From the start, Cha knew that the Fairlawn location wasn’t going to be a typical Yes! “We operated that store with much smaller profit margins, because I know the income level is not as high as in Northwest,” he says. “My goal was to bring good food and more affordable prices. Pretty much all the things, we sold for less.”

He had no illusions about turning huge profits. “I didn’t think we were going to make a whole lot of profit,” he says. “I was hoping we could break even.”

In the end, Cha says, he lost nearly a million dollars of his own money on the store. He points to his personal financial stake as evidence that the city’s $900,000 grant for the store wasn’t a risky attempt to prop up an unviable venture, but rather an investment in a proven businessman who had a significant interest in seeing the store succeed.

“When I was willing to invest that much money, it’s not like the city’s giving me the store,” says Cha. “We sort of saw the same thing, and they said, well, if the Yes! Organic is willing to invest that much...”

“Gary’s got $700,000 or $800,000 of his own money in this,” agrees Tim Chapman, the developer of the building that houses the Yes!, who once planned a broad partnership with Cha to bring Yes! stores to other low-income areas. “That money’s gone.”

Chapman insists that Cha didn’t simply open the store on the basis of the city’s generosity, given all he had to lose. But Cha does say he wouldn’t have started a branch there without the city’s help. “Had I not gotten the support from the city, it would have been too much of a risk,” he says.

That raises the question of whether a grant of this sort can trump the market fundamentals that generally determine if and where a retailer opens a store. But more than that, it questions the city’s rationale for providing the grant. After all, it came in the waning days of Mayor Adrian Fenty’s administration, when he was struggling to attract the support of east-of-the-river voters in the upcoming mayoral primary. (Fenty cut the ribbon at the store’s grand opening and declared himself “thrilled” to usher “fresh, nutritious food at an affordable price” into the area.)

You’d think any District study should have at least yielded one conclusion: The store is really hard to access. Cha intended for the store to serve mostly customers living east of the river, but for those approaching from the east on Pennsylvania Avenue, there’s no way to make the left turn into the store’s parking lot. And for people coming from the bridge to the west, getting to the store is easy, but leaving is hard: Drivers are forced to turn right onto eastbound Pennsylvania Avenue, where there’s no U-turn allowed at the first few intersections.

But Jared Kahn, who was the project manager for the Yes! grant at DMPED, says the city conducted an extensive analysis that found enough upsides to the location to override the access issue.

“Everyone concluded that this doesn’t change the fact that there’s over 30,000 cars that drive by it a day,” Kahn recalls. “Not just on the far side—on the side with access. That in itself is pretty compelling to any retailer.”

But just about everyone else I spoke with, from brokers to city officials to Cha himself, pointed to the access issue as a reason, if not the reason, for the store’s struggles. It was enough of a concern for Cha that he spoke with the District Department of Transportation about improving access to the store. “They came out and looked at it, and they thought they were able to remove one of those U-turn signs,” he says. “But that wasn’t really conclusive, and they needed to do some more study, and it ended at that.”

DDOT spokesman John Lisle says he is not aware of any such plans, but notes that they could be problematic. “You’d be essentially permitting people to block traffic to make a potentially dangerous U-turn into heavy traffic,” he says.

Citing the tricky location, brokers make the case that the store’s failure shouldn’t discourage further development east of the river.

“The challenge with Yes! Organic was access to that space,” says Mike Howard, a broker with Rappaport. “At the end of the day, they were sandwiched between a Safeway at Good Hope Marketplace and a Harris Teeter at Jenkins Row, and both had more traditional parking arrangements.”

Chapman is insistent that the closure of the Yes! represents only a failure of that particular store’s business model and doesn’t reflect poorly on the viability of retail in the area. Of course, he’s compelled to say that: Come December, he’ll have a big empty storefront to fill.

But David Zipper, who leads DMPED’s business development team, maintains that the city will continue to invest in retail east of the river. “We remain bullish on the future of retail opportunities and resident-serving businesses east of the river,” he says, “and we’re going to push them.”

***

Even as he prepares to shut the doors on the Fairlawn Yes! for the final time, Cha says he hopes to open another store in the area before long. “East of the river, I think, is a great place to do business,” he says. “And I think if I find another location with easier access, I may be the first going back there.”

The demand is there, he’s sure. Ever the self-critic, Cha just believes he needs to step up his game. “I know there’s a need for grocery stores,” he says. “I have to be a better businessperson. I just have to be better.”

Cha’s contrition may approach entrepreneurial self-flaggelation, but no one else is willing to say a bad word about him. Chapman calls him “very bright,” “pioneering,” “a gentleman,” and “one of the nicest guys I’ve ever met.” The word “decent” comes up in just about every conversation about the man. Multiple sources asked me to go easy on Cha, given all that he’s been through.

One of those sources was the crestfallen Cha himself, who meekly pleaded not to be made out as a villain. “I hope the story is not too negative,” he says, “because I really did try the best I can.”

Photos by Darrow Montgomery

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  • We Dont Want That

    Although the Yes Market was a strong sign that change is coming east of the River, I think it was the wrong move for it to be the first business to move over on that side.

    Its going to be tough because 99% of the stuff east of the river is junk food and carryout. People I assume rarely cook over there so I think that the Organic Food shop just didnt have enough support from the community.

    Also it being on the corner of the street was a bad idea because anyone who would possibly want to shop their wouldnt be able to park.

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  • Caroline

    I live a couple blocks away from the recently relocated Yes! on Barracks Row. Although the store is fun to browse, and convenient for grabbing the occasional ingredient, I can't afford to shop there regularly. And I say this as someone who is relatively well off, and who cares about the quality of what I'm eating. I just can't justify paying that much. This isn't a complaint-- the store seems to be doing well so apparently there are folks in the neighborhood with deeper pockets than mine-- but it certainly might explain why east of the river residents were reluctant to shop at this store. I can't imagine the prices were reduced enough at this location to compete with Safeway and Harris Teeter. Even if they did, a lot of people still associate the word "organic" with "expensive". And these stores never have the full range of groceries that you'd find at a big store, so you end up having to make a second shopping trip. That's a big turn-off.

    Here's an interesting question-- would a Whole Foods in this location have also failed? Let's assume, for the sake of argument, that there was also a Whole Foods in Capitol Hill so those residents wouldn't need to go to this one. In that scenario I don't think the Whole Foods would be much more successful than the Yes!.

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  • Keith

    @We Dont Want That

    "People I assume rarely cook over there"

    Your ignorance is showing. Just because it is the only ORGANIC grocery store East of the Anacostia does not mean that there arent other grocery stores (Giant & Safeway) east of the Anacostia. I personally never shopped at YES! because of the lack of parking in the area and the helacious traffic at that intersection during rush hour when Im getting off of work.

  • Sharonc

    I could not figure out where to park to walk to the store. That is a very busy section of Pennsyvania Av, with very little time to ponder. I wish that the store cold have made it. This city really needs to make more coordinated between agencies effort to help business thrive. No doubt that DDOT could have helped in this instance. Will they bother helping the next business?

  • BrendaF

    I shopped at that store often and figured out how to get to the store to park in the lot without making uturns. FOR ME that wasn't an issue. In the beginning, the produce was subpar many times, which is why a friend of mine stopped shopping there. Recently, the produce seemed much better. I did have a problem a month ago with molded cheese and I was very unhappy about that. I don't see me going to the YES! at Eastern Market because the parking is even worse. I'll continue to go to MOMs in Alexandria.

    I am NOT a fan of that Safeway on Alabama Ave. The produce is even worse and many times the store is dirty.

  • ScrewU

    Chicken breasts instead of chicken wings. 'Nuff said.

  • Didn’t Stand a Chance

    I've always thought it was a bad idea to place the Yes! store in that location or any organic grocery store for that matter. Anything with the "organic" tag applied gives the impression of being "more expensive." Did the impact study poll all of the people that would most likely use the store? With the Harris Teeter and Safeway being near the Potomac Avenue Metro people who travel home across the Sousa Bridge shop at these stores and then take the final bus for home. Parking is much better at the Harris Teeter and Safeway.

  • oboe

    Most people with an income EOTR drive everywhere anyway. So what's the advantage of having a store 5 min away with no parking (that happens to be in your ward) versus 7 minutes away with ample parking (that happens to be in PG county or Virginia)?

    If you drive everywhere anyway, there's no advantage. What kills SE relative to the rest of the city is that it's essentially very suburban which means it's very difficult for small-scale businesses and positive gentrification to take hold.

  • Cap City Records Panhandler

    Wasting $900,000 for the city is chicken feed

  • EastlandGardener

    I an a DC homeowner living in Ward 7 and have shopped at the to be shuttered Yes Organic market...

    I now regularly grocery shop at Wegmans in MD, here's why...

    -Good variety of food at reasonable prices!
    -Plentiful Parking!
    -Free bags!
    -No health code violations!
    (I'm looking at you Safeway @ Benning & Minnesota Ave)

    These seem to be something that DC/business community cannot provide residents east of the river...

  • anon

    I like Mr. Cha's intentions but have to agree with @Caroline. I find Yes good for small purchase convenience and good bulk selection, but somewhat cost prohibitive for more general shopping. There's no equivalent to WF 365 brand or TJs for best price on many common packaged items. There are pretty broad premiums in most every category of food stuff they sell.

  • Steve D

    "People rarely cook over there." Ha!

  • RJC

    I live within walking distance of Yes! My primary issue was the store was not conducive for family shopping. A family with children would not have been able to shop there without going broke. It stocked portions for singles and/or DINKs. My trips to Yes! occurred when I needed an upscale item or two to complete a meal, or was completely lazy and purchased a whole baked chicken. Like @EastlandGardener, I too drive to Wegmans, regularly.

  • Joy2day

    As a Ward 7 homeowner, I could take offense to the really dumb comments posted here, but why bother. If you have ever visited the Ward, there are no lines of 100's of people standing outside of fast food establishments because they don't cook. On the contrary, most people must cook because for a Ward of over 70k people, even the hole in the wall carryouts in my immediate neighborhood aren't super packed when I pass them coming home from work each night.

    The problem with this Yes! was the location. I personally shop the Whole Foods near my office and Harris Teeter on Capitol Hill. Since I don't drive, convenience and location is everything. I refuse to purchase even a stick of gum EoR. The day the Safeway on Minnesota gets my business is the day it morphs into the same quality of store like the Safeway in NoMa or Georgetown!

    I've heard that the Yes! may move to the PennBranch Shopping Center, so good for the neighbors in PennBranch and Hillcrest.

  • Scott

    Supply does not drive demand. It's that simple. This was the equivalent of opening a Food Lion in Georgetown. The free-market (supply and demand) is best at deciding where businesses should locate.

    When I heard that Yes was going to this location, I rolled my eyes and shook my head.

    It's a shame to the see the taxpayers' money wasted on this project.

  • Brad

    Access to and away from this Yes! was easy if you were on a bike and riding through Anacostia Park. You could come and leave through the two or three side streets to and from the park and never encounter a traffic light, and no traffic to deal with on Pennsylvania Avenue to get to the store. At least that's how I got there, effortlessly, coming across from South Capitol from SW.

    For many items, it was a good store. It seemed to have more items than the new outlet on 8th Street, and it was more roomier inside, and much easier to get around in. I'm sorry the place didn't last.

  • missing facts

    The Yes! Organic market had 15 reserved parking spaces that were free and in a garage... so... really there was parking provided...

    perhaps this should have been advertised...

  • Angelina

    Too expensive!!!!

  • Samuel Augustus Jennings

    Yes! stores charge the highest prices in town and it would be cheaper for Anacostians to to hop a train or bus to the nearest Whole Foods or Trader Joe's!

  • Samuel Augustus Jennings

    Yes! stores charge the highest prices in town. It would be cheaper for Anacostians to to hop a train or bus to the nearest Whole Foods or Trader Joe's!

  • DC Chick

    I heard someone else mentioned that Whole Foods question. Maybe it might work here EOR. Like everyone else says, that location was a bear. Made no sense trying to get to it.

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