We won’t try to hide it: Grocery shopping is one of our favorite things to do. Maybe it’s the neatly arranged food items that appeal to our obsessive-compulsive tendencies. Maybe it’s the world of new ingredients that appeal to our sense of culinary adventure. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly why, but grocery shopping is one errand in which we have always taken great pleasure.
Nowadays, Georgetown’s grocery options are fairly diverse. Many see the appeal of the organic foods found in the aisles of Whole Foods, despite the long trek up Wisconsin Avenue. Others find the creative marketing and pre-made options at Trader Joe’s more appealing. Some of us acquiesce to paying outrageous markups for the convenient staples found in Vittles or Wisey’s. And the laziest among us simply order online for their groceries to be delivered right to their front door. But the most versatile option — and by far the oldest — is the Social Safeway.
While shopping at our local Safeway is now a fairly pedestrian activity, this was not always the case. For years, the Safeway on Wisconsin Avenue was one of the only large supermarkets in the Georgetown area. In the 1970s, as more and more young professionals and ambitious political minds flocked to Georgetown’s colorful townhouses, this Safeway became a common focal point for local residents. Perhaps it’s difficult to imagine given today’s shopping experience, but it was not unusual for Georgetown’s young and ambitious crowd of political minds to flock to Safeway after work to do their day-to-day shopping.
According to many who lived in the area at the time, Safeway attracted an eclectic mix — the neighborhood’s doctorate candidates, lowly undergraduates, congressional aides, White House staffers, D.C. power-attorneys, K Street lobbyists, and the occasional member of Congress could be seen browsing the aisles for their basic sundries. Deals were made, handshakes were exchanged, and relationships were formed waiting in the checkout line. At any rate, it became widely known by 1980 in the District that the Safeway at Wisconsin and 35th Street was, in fact, the Social Safeway.
While we searched for the exact origins of this name, it remains unclear exactly who coined the term and when it gained traction in the local community. Safeway officials contend that the term is in reference to the political deals that were formed there. However, faculty and alumni familiar with the heyday of the Social Safeway agreed that the nickname refers to the flirtatious encounters that often occurred there. Before Tinder or OKCupid, if you were looking to meet new people, it was time to make an excuse to go grocery shopping. One alumna who preferred to remain anonymous claimed that she intentionally bought only three or four items during each trip, for the sole reason that she would have to frequently return to the grocery store, thus increasing her exposure to the dating pool.
It’s also interesting to note that Safeways around D.C. earned other nicknames, but none were quite as flattering nor stuck quite as well as the Social Safeway. For example, one Safeway franchise in Dupont Circle that was tight on space and thus never had a wide selection of food items was dubbed the Soviet Safeway. Another, hidden deep within the Watergate Complex was the Secret Safeway. The Safeway that used to be located on Georgia Avenue in Petworth was known as the Stinky Safeway for an inexplicable, persistent smell that permeated throughout the store. We were hoping to experience this phenomenon for ourselves, but we’re sad to say the Stinky Safeway was closed, bulldozed and rebuilt just a few years ago.
Ditching its outdated building and drab, fluorescent lighting, the Social Safeway was also rebuilt just a few years ago. In May 2010, to celebrate the new facility — which was largely touted as the largest, best-equipped supermarket in the D.C. area — Safeway threw itself an opening gala. According to stories in local news outlets from the time, the party was packed with 600 of the District’s most influential people, ranging from Republican bigwig Rep. Roy Blunt of Missouri to the District’s own Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D). Between the 10 open bars and newly invented cocktail for the occasion — the Socialtini — the party opening was dripping in expensive champagne and Belvedere vodka.
It’s hard to say what happened to this reputation in such a short time. Certainly, some Georgetown locals who are also major players in politics must frequent the Wisconsin Avenue establishment, but the aura of excitement and romantic grocery shopping adventures of the past seem to be rare now at the Social Safeway. Perhaps the Whole Foods up the block has eaten into Social Safeway’s clientele, and Georgetown’s climbing rents don’t make it the yuppie Mecca it once was. At any rate, Georgetown students should be proud that their local grocery store has perhaps the most colorful history of any in the country.
KATY BERK AND DAVID CHARDACK are juniors in the College. POLITICAL DIGEST appears every other Friday.
Have a reaction to this article? Write a letter to the editor.