Councilmember Gray Inspects Ward 7 Safeway Stores

Finds Substandard Conditions

Councilmember Vincent Gray (Ward 7-D) holds a package of New York strip steak in the meat department of the East River Park Shopping Center Safeway (322 40th St NE) on August 17th. “What could have happened, that it was packed on the sixteenth and it looks like this today?" he asked. Photo: Elizabeth O'Gorek

On Thursday morning Councilmember Vincent Gray (Ward 7-D) conducted unannounced site visits and inspections of two Safeway Grocery Stores located in Ward 7. The Councilmember, who is also Chair of the District Committee on Health, said he had received numerous complaints about the stores, located at East River Park Shopping Center (322 40th Street NE) and Good Hope Marketplace (2845 Alabama Avenue SE). Complaints included poor sanitation, expired dates on product labels, excessively long checkout lines, empty shelves and reduced store hours without notification to the community.

The issues were reported in a March article by Christine Rushton published in East of the River and discussed in the meetings that followed.

In March, community frustration was expressed at a meeting regarding the chain’s Ward 7 stores. In April, Gray met with Safeway Eastern Region Executive Management and requested an action plan and timetable to address customer complaints and to upgrade service. But four months later Gray said he is still receiving complaints, and after seeing recent tweets about the stores over the last two weeks, he decided to visit the stores and see conditions for himself.

“We’re just not satisfied with their lack of progress on the action plan. They’ve obviously still got some work to do,” he said, outside the East River Park location.

Gray was joined on the inspections by Advisory Neighborhood Commission (ANC) Commissioner Tyrell M. Holcomb (7F01), whose Single Member District is home to the East River Park Safeway. Gray’s Director of Communications Janis Hazel, who is also an ANC Commissioner (7D05), also attended the inspection, as did Angele Doyne, Community Partnership Manager for East River Family Strengthening Collaborative.

Together, they walked through the stores, examining overall condition of the store, equipment and the products for sale. Gray turned over bags of bread, and looked at expiry and best before dates on milk, produce and meats.

At the East River Park Safeway, Gray expressed concern about the status of the equipment, particularly freezers and refrigerator units in the deli and meat departments. The Councilmember bent down to examine the paper towels collecting moisture from a leaking fridge containing roast chickens. “This case here, if I saw that, that would be the end of my shopping,” he said. “That is gross.”

The Councilmember noted moldy strawberries in packages and substandard meat. He seemed particularly alarmed by one leaking package of discolored New York strip steak. “This says it was packed on the sixteenth,” he said. “What could have happened, that it was packed on the sixteenth and it looks like this today?” Gray spoke to an employee who acknowledged that the item should not have been offered for sale and hypothesized that it was placed back in the fridge after being discarded at customer service.

Gray also expressed concern about accountability and communication at East River Park Safeway. As the store manager was not available, Gray spoke with the store’s Assistant Manager, Jerome Jackson, about progress on the action plan and about the store’s recent change in hours. Last week the hours for the East River Park Shopping Center Safeway were reduced by two hours, from 6 a.m. open and 10 p.m. close to a 7 a.m. open and a 9 p.m. close, making it even more difficult for residents of Ward 7 to purchase groceries.

Jackson, who was only named Assistant Manager to that location in March, said that he was not sure about progress on the action plan, or precisely why the hours had been changed.

“Are there any other Safeway stores in the city that close at 9 p.m.?” Gray asked.

The question was answered by an ANC Commissioner, who said that this was the only district store that closed earlier than 12 p.m. Gray asked, “Now how does someone who doesn’t work for Safeway know that and you don’t?”

“I would assume the leaders of Safeway would ensure you are adequately informed to answer these kinds of questions,” he added.

According to the Safeway website the other 12 stores in the District, including the Good Hope Marketplace location, are open until midnight or for twenty-four hours.

Gray also asked about protocols, expressing disappointment upon being told that there was no document outlining how to evaluate customer service satisfaction.

Gray also inspected the Safeway at Good Hope Marketplace later Thursday afternoon. There, his office reported that there were only three open checkout lanes, with long lines containing mostly seniors waiting to purchase groceries. “These are older people who have medical issues and can’t stand as long as younger people, waiting thirty, forty minutes in line,” Hazel said.

In a statement released prior to the inspections, Gray described the approaches necessary to dealing with the lack of grocery options in his ward.

“I have introduced legislation to bring more grocery stores into Ward 7 and the East End, but in the meantime, Safeway must address and correct these substandard conditions,” said Councilmember Gray.

Beth Goldberg, Safeway’s Senior Manager of Community and Public Affairs, said, “Our customers are of the utmost importance to us and we have actively worked to improve their experience at our Ward 7 stores. This includes increasing check-out-lane staff; expanding our product and service offerings to include delivery, more fresh options and easy-to-find favorites throughout the store; refreshing the layout and organization inside the store; and continuing to support the Ward 7 community as we always have. These changes are in the process of being implemented or are already part of our store operations.”

Councilmember Gray inspects the paper towels absorbing leakage from a refrigerator unit holding roast poultry. Photo: Elizabeth O'Gorek
Mold is visible on strawberries sold at the East River Park Safeway. Photo: Elizabeth O'Gorek
Less-than-fresh corn on the cob at the East River Park Safeway Thursday morning. Photo: Elizabeth O'Gorek