Councilmember Gray Meets With Senior Safeway Executives Thursday Afternoon

Safeway Senior Vice President of External Affairs Says Meeting Was Productive, Gray Says He is Not Reassured

Councilmember Vincent Gray listens to a question from reporters after meeting with Safeway executive Thursday afternoon. Safeway requested the meeting with Gray after the Councilmember conducted surprise inspections of the two Ward 7 stores August 17th. Photo: Elizabeth O'Gorek

Following his meeting with Safeway executive on Thursday afternoon, Councilmember Vincent Gray (Ward 7-D) said he was determined to continue pressing for improvements in the shopping experience at the two Ward 7 Safeway stores.

The Councilmember met with President of Safeway’s Eastern Division Dan Valenzuela, Safeway’s Director of Government Affairs Division Stephanie Maxwell Ridoré, as well as Jonathan Mayes, Senior Vice President of External Affairs for Albertsons Companies, Safeway’s parent company.

In April, Gray had met with a team of Safeway executives to discuss community concerns regarding conditions and service at the two stores located at East River Park Shopping Center (322 40th Street NE) and Good Hope Marketplace (2845 Alabama Avenue SE).

After that meeting, Safeway produced an action plan which outlined a plan and timeline to improve store operations and customer shopping experience at those two locations. Despite this, Gray said he continued to hear customer complaints about service and products at the stores.

As a result, Gray conducted a surprise inspection of the two Ward 7 Safeway stores on August 17th. During his visits, Gray found spoiled produce, discolored meat and long lines of customers waiting to pay. He also questioned the communication and motivation behind a change to operating hours at the East River Park location. Two weeks ago store hours were reduced by two hours every day, 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 Ward 7 residents to purchase groceries.

After Gray’s inspections, which were covered by local media, Safeway requested a meeting with the Councilmember.

Afterward, the Safeway representatives expressed satisfaction with the meeting. Vice-President of External Affairs Jonathan Mayes said, “It was a very productive meeting,” before getting into an elevator.

Gray, however, would not say that he was satisfied with the outcome of the meeting. He did express appreciation for Eastern Region President Valenzuela’s attendance at the meeting, saying “I think that shows commitment.”

The Councilmember told East of the River that Safeway executives had claimed to have fulfilled 90% of the action plan that they had presented to him in April. Gray said that his view of what has been accomplished and their view of what has been accomplished were very different.

“On the other hand, I think I’m like a lot of people,” he added, “that is, we’ll only feel comfortable when we start to see enduring, permanent changes having been institutionalized in the way these two stores operate.”

Ridoré, Safeway’s Director of Government Affairs, expressed an eagerness to continue improvement efforts, saying via email after the meeting, “We know we have work to do to overcome the challenges surrounding these stores, and we are pleased to have Councilmember Gray’s support in that effort. We look forward to continuing to work together with the Councilmember, the community, and other stakeholders on behalf of our Ward 7 customers.”

Gray said that Safeway had named Ridoré as a point person who will act as a liaison between Safeway executives and the Councilmember’s Office moving forward.

Gray also reported that the Safeway executives had indicated they had no intention of closing either of the Ward 7 stores, at the same time saying that the two stores were not making a profit. He said that the executives had indicated that this lack of profitability coupled with high shrinkage, or theft, was the reason for the reduced hours at the East River Park Safeway. 

Ridoré emphasized the challenges facing management of the two stores. “Loss of inventory due to factors like spoilage and theft in Ward 7 is nearly double that of other stores in our division, and issues like heightened vandalism, thefts and violence persist,” she said.

She added that the high cost of private security and high turnover rates are also an issue.

“While turnover in the grocery industry is usually higher than other industries, we’re finding that turnover rates in those stores can be as high as 150%, akin to replacing the entire staff nearly every six months,” she said.

Gray said he offered to work with Safeway and the Department of Employment Services (DOES) to facilitate the hiring of local, skilled employees as he had previously done with Costco. He suggested that Safeway use a similar model, allowing DOES to recruit employees for a first interview, then sending staff from their Human Resources Department to do a second.

“Everybody who was initially hired into Costco was a District resident, and they were able to get people who they felt met the criteria for their jobs,” Gray said.

Gray said that safety was a concern expressed by the executives, noting that the East River Park Safeway is currently without a manager. He said he had been told that the store manager, whom he had hoped to speak with on his August 17th inspection of the store, “had been threatened and was in fear for his safety and had not reappeared since.”

Ridoré would not comment on the situations of specific employees, but said that at East River Park Safeway they had “adjusted the hours of operation to open at 7 a.m. and close at 9 p.m. to provide a safe, secure environment for customers to shop and employees to work.”

Gray also said he was told Thursday that Safeway was conducting ongoing meetings with members of the community, but that neither he nor his staff were made aware of any of these meetings. Safeway had committed to meeting with community members regularly in the spring.

Ridoré said that they had met with a customer satisfaction group three times: in May, June and early August. She said they had assistance in arranging the meetings from Adrian Sutton, the Ward 7 Liaison in the Mayor’s Office of Community Relations.

Gray added that the executives had expressed dismay at what they called the “negative media coverage” initiated by Gray’s surprise inspections. Gray said he had defended his decisions and that he had taken full responsibility for bringing the state of the Ward 7 Safeway stores to the attention of the media. He said he told executives that they could count on the media accompanying him on any additional inspections of stores.

“If you think that I had a role in facilitating that,” he said he had told them, “you are absolutely right.”

Jonathan Mayes, Albertsons Senior Vice President, External Affairs, Director of Government Affairs Division Stephanie Maxwell Ridoré and President of Eastern Division Dan Valenzuela as they leave the meeting with Councilmember Gray Thursday afternoon. Photo: Elizabeth O'Gorek
“It was a very productive meeting." Jonathan Mayes, Albertsons Senior Vice President, External Affairs speaks to WJLA reporter Sam Ford. Photo: Elizabeth O'Gorek