By Jamie Swinnerton
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Living in a rapidly improving neighborhood has its pluses and minuses. In the Old San Rafael section of central Denver -- my stamping grounds -- the upside includes increasing property values, decreasing crime and fewer addicts smoking crack beneath the Neighborhood Watch signs. On the downside, there are heftier property taxes, housing prices that are villainous, and gangs of SUV drivers and Land's End wearers roaming the streets -- not to mention a dilution of the area's rich ethnic diversity -- as developers exploit the upswing.
But when it comes to pleasing the palate, the pros outweigh the cons for every demographic group. An upper-crusting community requires better choices in potables and victuals, and no one knows this better than Gary Richard. In the '80s, Richard's liquor store in the 400 East block of 20th Avenue dealt in screw-cap wines and budget booze which was served to a largely homeless and impoverished clientele. They did their drinking in the Benedict Fountain park across the street. Neighbors grew tired of stumbling over empty bottles of Night Train and Richard's passed-out-in-the-park customers and eventually convinced him to relocate to the Safeway shopping center at 757 East 20th, where he's been for the past fifteen years.
From there, he's watched as surrounding neighborhoods -- including Curtis Park, Five Points and Whittier -- have gone from feared to favored. At the same time, Richard's Washington Liquor store has changed from social evil to community asset. To satisfy a shifting customer base, he's traded fortified wines for gourmet grapes (with corks!) and cut-rate beers for craft suds. "It's been exciting to see this thing develop, to see the neighborhood develop," Richard says, standing in the center of his recently expanded store. "When I moved here and agreed to stop selling fortified wines, that cut out half of my business. It was pretty stressful for a while, but it worked out."
Across the parking lot, things are working out at the Safeway, too. Known for decades as "Unsafeway" (a ridiculously inaccurate nickname coined by whites who never set foot in the place) and recently referred to as the "Ghetto Safeway" by a local community leader, the store had long been a diamond in the rough, thanks to a friendly, first-name-basis staff and fresh produce. But today the store sports a swanky new interior and a thrilling range of staples and gourmet goods. Where you were once hard-pressed to find a good olive oil, there's an array of gourmet oils, vinegars and spices. The produce section includes a massive whole-foods area (complete with "stomach-friendly coffee"), and the deli's cheese selection is anything but cheesy.
Unsafe? The only danger now are the cell-phone yakkers who conduct business while drooling over the store's bottled water and Wolfgang Puck canned goods. The store even boasts the ultimate yuppification badge right at its entrance: a Starbucks stand. "We've always been downtown," one Safeway clerk points out. "Now they say we're 'Uptown.'"
"It's about time they realized there's a disposable income in the neighborhood that will support it," says Denver City Councilwoman Elbra Wedgeworth, who represents the district and considers the Safeway her local market. "We have folks that can and do spend money over here."
Richard hasn't forgotten how things used to be, though. "If we'd had a knife or gun detector at the door, nobody would have ever gotten in the store," he remembers of the days when he first took over his father's liquor shop. "I had a guy come up to the counter and tell me, 'Gary, I've got a gun.'" After ordering Richard to pile Camels, Miller High Life and Jim Beam on the counter, the man took the gun out of his coat, placed it on the counter and walked out with the goods. "It was a trade, not a robbery," Richard recalls. "He came in about three days later and said, 'Gary, I've got a TV.'"
Today, Richard deals with a crowd that's willing to pay for booze. Many drop their dollars in the wine section, which features a healthy selection of respectable, reasonably priced California and European wines. "We sold more wine, nice wine, last November than I did in all of 1996," Richard says. The store's expanded spirits list is just as heady; it includes a short list of single malts and boutique spirits along with more ubiquitous brands of bourbon, rum and more. "I've been really surprised by our sales of upscale gins and vodkas," he adds.
"But this," he says, gesturing to the doors that hold his craft and import beers, "has been bigtime. About every six months, I cut out a door of cheaper beers and add microbrews." The store's choice list includes import staples (Guinness, Corona and Molson) along with national craft beers (Full Sail, Samuel Adams) and in-state suds from Avery (including bombers of Hog Heaven and Reverend), Flying Dog, Great Divide and more. The lineup also holds a few unexpected treasures, such as low-priced magnums of Affligem, one of Belgium's finest beers, that never would have sold here just three years ago.
But Richard also wants to be sure that a more upscale customer base doesn't chase off his regulars, so he continues to cater to the local who saves up to buy a bottle of Crown Royal at the first of the month. "I want the working guy who's always come in here and bought a bottle of Country Club or a forty-ounce malt liquor," he says. "I have a loyalty to him."
Safeway takes a similar approach to its improved outlet: In addition to higher-end items, it's expanded its inventory to appeal to Hispanics moving into the community, as well as the African-Americans who helped keep the place afloat all those years. "In that store, for example, we put in a much larger selection of greens," Stroh says. There are also larger-sized canned goods and meat cut in smaller portions. "Hispanics tend to prefer thinner cuts of meat just because of the way they prepare it," he points out.
Sure, it sounds like racial profiling of the supermarket sort. But if that's what it takes to keep the neighborhood's diverse mix of bellies full, who's complaining? "That store is a community gathering place, and we want to maintain that," Stroh says. "On a sunny day it's kind of fun out in front of that store."
Richard agrees. "Everybody shops here," he says. "I have a friend who has a liquor store -- he thinks I'm crazy. He told me, 'Shut the doors on the forty-ouncers and get rid of them.' In the long run that's probably the thing to do, I'd make more money. But I have a loyalty to the neighborhood. I'm not going to do that."