t’s 7 o’clock on a Tuesday evening, and the dinner rush is just getting started in the 14th Street corridor. Le Diplomate, Compass Rose, and other hot spots have already begun cranking out food orders, and the bars are starting to fill up. Happy-hour drinkers huddle outside to smoke and vape between cocktails.
At the moment, however, much of the action is at a different kind of culinary destination: Trader Joe’s. The brightly lit grocery store is packed with young, smartly dressed shoppers stocking up on provisions as they head home. Into the baskets go kombucha, dried apricots, and boxes of chicken tikka masala. Carts overflow with bottles of Bordeaux, hunks of Parmigiano-Reggiano, and brightly colored bags of frozen, smoothie-ready berries. Whether it’s due to all the trendy food or to the IPA samples being handed out, there’s a buzz in the air. It’s a scene. Seventeen checkout clerks are on duty, but the line snakes around the back of the store.
Like so much else in DC, grocery shopping has changed dramatically over the last 20 years. In the not too distant past, Washington’s professional class spent its grocery money at two broadly similar chains, which had stores in ritzy neighborhoods and less ritzy ones, hip parts of town and stuffy ones. Perhaps some of their locations were bigger than others, but by and large people had access to the same things. Consumers looking for a higher-end experience stopped by specialty stores.
The 14th Street Trader Joe’s—just like the restaurants that line the same formerly forlorn strip—would have been unimaginable in that old duopoly. But so would many of the stores in less buzzy neighborhoods across the District, Maryland, and Virginia, where the array of grocery options, and the public interest in them, might baffle a visitor from the 1980s.
Though it’s tempting to cast this as another step in America’s culinary evolution, it’s about more than produce. The stores are now cultural signifiers and crucial economic drivers. On 14th Street, the arrival of this Trader Joe’s in 2013 helped solidify the transformed neighborhood as a destination for upmarket sophisticates. So did a Harris Teeter at the east end of Capitol Hill. But the excitement about new supermarkets extends well beyond neighborhoods that need a yuppie brand to prove their recent affluence. When cult favorite Wegmans announced plans to open a vast new outpost on Wisconsin Avenue in upper Northwest, many neighbors greeted it with the kind of enthusiasm usually reserved for a new Fabio Trabocchi spot.
Still more newcomers are on the horizon: Earth Fare, a fast-growing grocer with an emphasis on natural foods, recently arrived in Fairfax, with more stores on the way. The Florida chain Publix is eyeing a move into the area, too. Then there are German budget-shopping imports Aldi and Lidl, both making a big play to dominate Washington refrigerators. Lidl—which opened its first area location in Manassas last September—decided to build its US headquarters in Crystal City to take advantage of the area’s talent pool and general foodiness.
Washington’s grocery explosion is fantastic news for shoppers, of course. But it goes much further than that. In some ways, the new breed of supermarket is helping define how we live and even the way we think about ourselves. Am I an Earth Fare person or a Harris Teeter person? Should I move to the neighborhood where they’re opening a Wegmans or the suburb with that new Lidl? And what in the world am I supposed to do with this spaghetti squash I talked myself into buying at Whole Foods?