Safeway’s Craig Muckle on Petworth, Walmart and More

Flickr: M.V. Jantzen

The new-ish Safeway at City Vista.

Yesterday, in my “About that Petworth Safeway“-post, I promised that I would speak to someone at Safeway’s corporate offices to confirm and clarify information about their plans for one highly-anticipated renovation. I spoke to Craig Muckle; he’s their Manager of Public Affairs and Government Relations for this region and he was very helpful and informative.

First: DCentric reader Teke Wiggin was correct; Muckle confirms that the Social Safeway in Georgetown is the city’s largest at 71,000 square feet. The next largest location is at Hechinger Mall in Northeast, at 62,000 square feet. That means that the proposed renovation of the Petworth Safeway will put it in third place in terms of size, at 60,000 square feet. My final thought on all of these numbers is this: I don’t really care which neighborhood’s store is bigger, as long as the produce is fresh, the products are priced fairly and the service is good. I don’t shop at the large grocery store that is two blocks away from me because it fails on all three of those counts. If it were half-the size and twice as friendly, I’d be happy to go there, so I think square footage is interesting and useful– up to a point.

While some locals hope that an independent coffee seller like Qualia could be included in the new store design, Muckle confirmed that when it comes to in-store coffee at Safeway, “in the U.S. it’s Starbucks”. I usually don’t drink their coffee (Filter and Baked and Wired, holla!), but I also don’t notice that they are the chain in Safeway (or Target, for that matter); the only time I paid attention to their presence was when I realized that since the Safeway in Georgetown is open 24 hours a day, it would’ve made an odd, yet comforting place to pull all-nighters when I was in school. By the way, Muckle confirmed that the Petworth Safeway’s hours haven’t been established yet.

Again, much like square footage, the presence of a Starbucks doesn’t seem as relevant as the produce and other products. Most of the people who have written to me about food worry about being able to afford nutritious produce or dairy products for their families; they’re not thinking about Double Tall Extra-Hot White Chocolate Mochas. I’m sympathetic to concerns about harming indie coffeehouses, but from what I’ve seen, usually the customer who patronizes an independent joint doesn’t go to Starbucks and vice-versa, so here’s hoping everyone in Petworth succeeds.

On to the interview!

Here’s what Craig Muckle had to say about Safeway’s in-store coffee stops:

We don’t put other vendors out of business; we’re not that kind of operation. Here’s a great example…the Georgetown store has its own Starbucks and there’s one right across the street. They both thrive.

I asked Muckle about the order in which the city’s stores were updated:

We wanted to do what we are doing now, but for a number of reasons, it’s taken a long time to get to this point. We wanted to do this three years ago, but the economy made it much more challenging. People don’t always understand our process. They see other stores get renovated…unfortunately, we’re competing against the rest of our colleagues around the country to get projects done in a certain period of time. We’re often restricted by the order at which the company wants to pursue this, and we need corporate approval. Other divisions make their appeals, too and things get moved around. It was important to us. We go to community meetings, and people don’t want to hear about our business processes…they just want to get their store done. The bottom line? There’s always been a desire (since the ’99 renovation when we saw a return on our investment)  to try and build a better store there, to help everyone out, and help our business.

How many stores do you have?

Roughly 1700, across the country.

That reminds me– I noticed that unlike some of your competitors in D.C., there were Red Kettles in your stores during the holiday season.

Well I don’t want to comment on our competitors’ practices, but we’ve been a partner with the Salvation Army for a long time…they were welcome this Winter, they will continue to be welcome. Some people enjoy making contributions to them. They get in the spirit of the season and want to give to those in need; if we can provide an opportunity to do that, we’re happy to.

Is Safeway concerned about Walmart’s impending arrival in D.C.? Is that influencing your decisions here in any way?

Well, renovating our stores has been something we have focused on for six or seven years…the “Lifestyle concept” is very successful at City Vista, Georgetown, the Waterfront…unfortunately, Petworth is one of the last stores to be updated in this city. I don’t say that lightly…I would’ve liked to see it renovated earlier myself. We’re seeing drug stores get in to the food business, so we’re in a very competitive marketplace. We’ll continue to keep our longtime shoppers engaged with us by providing great service and quality products at a reasonable price. We’re concerned about anyone selling groceries, but it’s been our business for 85 years, so we’re coming at it from a different point of view.

Well, why would someone choose you over a Walmart, for example, especially if their prices are competitive?

There are certain aspects of our business which set us apart. We do prepared foods very, very well. Our new stores have great Meat departments– those are an opportunity for us to demonstrate some knowledge about what we’re selling, like “Here’s what you can get that will complement what you’re serving.” Similarly, our beer/wine departments offer ideas about pairings. I think those aspects of our business are what differentiate us from a Target or a CVS; you’re not going to get that service there. It’s just not possible to fit a full-line of produce or a wide variety of it in a 10,000 sq. ft. drug store than at a 60,000 sq foot Safeway. Their size precludes that selection. We’re going to be a destination for groceries.

A “destination for groceries”?

People are embracing us; it’s meaningful for them to have a new Safeway. I know folks in Southwest are thrilled. We had similar challenges down there that we have now in Petworth…I know they’ll be excited. And after 13.5 years of this store being an issue, I’ll be happy, too. I hope everyone will be happy when it’s built!