On a Sunday afternoon in November, several people were shopping in the only specialty grocery store, east of the river on Pennsylvania Avenue in Southeast.
Many seemed unaware about the pending demise of the Yes! Organic store in Fairlawn, even amid empty shelves, cleared-out refrigerators and employees unwilling to talk.
"It's sad to see it go," said Jerome Brisbane, 36, a Verizon employee browsing the aisles. "It's no wonder it's so empty." Brisbane, who didn't realize the store would be closed the end of November, said he usually stops by after work.
"I think the price is worth it rather than eating processed food," said Brisbane who lives on Good Hope Road in Southeast.
Mechelle Thornton, a Ward 7 resident, was also surprised to learn of the closing, which has been reported in District newspapers and blogs since early November.
"I find the prices are reasonable, especially for the Southeast neighborhood," said Thornton, 50, as she scooped up some loose yogurt-covered pretzels and placed them into a plastic bag. "I notice the difference in prices at this Yes! I come all the time. I'm sad it has to go but I'll shop at the one on Barracks Row."
This Yes! Organic store opened its doors in 2010 in The Grays, a mixed-use property with 118 affordable housing units. It offered the Pennsylvania Avenue strip a much-needed makeover. With the Great Streets Initiative and the Supermarket Tax Credit program, the city offered a $900,000 grant and a tax break to bring Yes! east of the Anacostia River.
Despite that, owner Gary Cha, a Korean-American, reportedly said he couldn't turn a profit. Cha came to the United States in the early 1970s as a teenager, according to an interview he did with National Public Radio. He runs the organic stores with his siblings.
The first store opened 1983 in Adams Morgan, and he has since opened others on Capitol Hill, Cleveland Park, Brookland, Petworth, U Street and Hyattsville, Md. The Fairlawn store would be the first to close.
Ward 7 Council member Yvette Alexander (D) said Cha is interested in staying in Ward 7, "but at a more ideal location that offers parking and more density."
"I urge the community to support businesses that come to our community," said Alexander, 51, who's also committed to working with The Grays to find another food supplier to replace Yes! "The next time an incentive is offered, we have to ensure some guarantees from the business as well, though I can't blame any business wanting to pull out when they're not making a profit or losing money."
The store's closing is somewhat of a setback to east of the river residents who have long complained about not having quality food in what has been described as a "food desert."
Residents in Ward 7's Hillcrest neighborhood have pointed to the disappointing turn of the Safeway in the Good Hope Marketplace, which initially had a good relationship with the community. However, with management changeover, it has deteriorated to a point where their needs aren't being addressed.
"I, along with many other Hillcrest, ANC7B and Ward 7 citizens spent countless hours working with the developer, Sandy Wilkes, and Safeway Corporation executives and managers to make it possible for Safeway to construct their store at Good Hope Marketplace," said activist Paul Savage. "To say I am deeply disappointed in Safeway and the low-grade retail offering of goods and services provided at that store would be a gross understatement."
Residents complained the Safeway wasn't comparable with others around the city with long lines, poor food offerings, and overall unprofessionalism. Those with transportation saw Yes! and Harris Teeter on Potomac Avenue in Southeast as viable alternatives. The area has two farmers' markets that began operations in the past year – at Skyland Shopping Center and Pennsylvania Avenue Baptist Church – but offerings never seemed as robust as other communities.
Hillcrest resident Kathy Chamberlain shopped at Yes! regularly and like others was disappointed with the closing.
"Like many of our neighbors, we were hoping Yes! was the beginning of quality retail along an otherwise ugly strip of Pennsylvania Avenue," Chamberlain said. "Truthfully, when they opened, I had doubts they would survive at that location because it's not walkable from the neighborhoods like Hillcrest that would most likely support it. And once we're in our cars, it is tempting to keep driving west over the Anacostia River to a full-service grocery store. I hope Yes! or another store like it will open close to Hillcrest, so we have a convenient and walkable alternative to Safeway."