After more than two years of losing money, the owner of the first and only all-organic grocery store east of the Anacostia River has finally called it quits. Yes! Organic Market, located in Ward 8's Fairlawn neighborhood, was a setback for Gary Cha, who owns six other successful organic markets in the area. When this one went down, it took $900,000 of D.C. grant money with it.
Envisioned as the retail anchor for a 118-unit mixed-use development on Pennsylvania Ave. SE, Yes! Fairlawn was a long-awaited alternative to fast food in one of the city's poorest areas. It opened to great fanfare in 2010, with then-Mayor Adrian Fenty on hand to cut the ribbon. Council member Marion Barry, D-Ward 8, called it "the culmination of my work" in bringing more grocery options to this underserved area. But it never made a profit.
There are a few lessons here. Cha made a classic business mistake of selecting the wrong location. The Fairlawn store, located just east of the John Philip Sousa Bridge, was notoriously difficult to access for the 30,000 cars that passed by it daily. Even though Yes! accepted food stamps and other nutrition benefits, too many people said No! to its extremely high prices and chose the nearby Safeway and Harris Teeter, which have traditional parking lots. Like everybody else, people in Ward 8 shop where it's most convenient and where they get the most value for their money.
Instead of handing him $900,000 in city grants, it would have been far more prudent for city officials to help Cha out by making it easier for customers to get into his parking lot. The grant money is gone, but any road improvement would have benefited a future tenant.
Cha admitted he would not have invested a million dollars of his own money in the venture unless D.C. taxpayers absorbed nearly half the risk. This should have been the red flag of warning for city officials.
Meanwhile, Wal-Mart is still planning to build two urban-scale stores east of the Anacostia, with no grants from the district whatsoever. The irony is that if anybody can make a profit selling fresh organic produce in Ward 8, it will be the giant capitalist retailer that District progressives are fighting to keep out.