Rats, Moldy Food, and a Dearth of Staff: Community Demands Better Conditions, Options at Othello Safeway

by Carolyn Bick

The last time Michelle Timson visited the Othello Safeway was when the novel coronavirus pandemic first broke out.

“I won’t go to the Othello Safeway. It’s way too crowded. There’s no social distancing at all being enforced from what I have seen from the one time that I went,” Timson said.

But the lack of social distancing was just the rotting cherry on top of a fermenting sundae for Timson. Like many of her fellow Othellians, the South Seattle resident had had enough of the store, which many in the neighborhood have complained about for years, citing everything from rotting produce, expired packaged food and rat sightings to an overworked, understaffed employee base and an unsafe parking lot. Because of this, Timson and more than 1,500 others have signed a petition started by local activist and 37th District legislative candidate Chukundi Salisbury calling for better store conditions.

Timson said she doesn’t understand why Safeway’s parent company, Albertsons Companies, Inc., doesn’t hold all their stores to the same standards. Since the proverbial last straw that was her experience at the Othello Safeway, during the pandemic she’s been shopping at the Safeway in Rainier Beach, which she said also has problems in terms of social distancing and food options, but isn’t as bad as the Othello Safeway.

Timson has lived down the street from the Othello Safeway for 11 years and used to shop there before the pandemic. As a survivor of human trafficking, she has post-traumatic stress syndrome (PTSS) and suffers symptoms when she goes into crowded public places. South Seattle is generally a high-density neighborhood, so no matter where she went, Timson reasoned, she’d have to face crowds. She figured she might as well get it over with as quickly as possible and thus shopped at the Othello Safeway.

The problem is, because of her PTSS, Timson can’t usually take the time to look at the expiry dates for any of the food she buys. She’s bought more expired or almost-expired food from that Safeway than she can remember. Even when she was able to stay in the store and search, she said she didn’t have many appealing options. Each piece of produce was just as battered as the last.

“There would be no other selection to choose from. I would look and look and look, and there would be nothing else. The expired food, of course, I wouldn’t catch until I got home,” Timson said. “But there was mold on cheese and on one occasion it was kind of an expensive cheese. … When I got home and went to prepare it, there was a whole chunk of mold on it, and I looked at the packaging, and the packing had an expired date on it.”

She’s also plagued by horror stories from her close friend who used to work in the bakery department at that Safeway. Her friend, who has worked at multiple Safeways, would tell her about the rats she’d see boldly scrabbling around the back rooms, heedless — or uncaring — that there were humans present.

“She said [the Othello Safeway] is so scary to work in. The rats — she’s literally seen them running, when she goes into be in the bakery in the morning. She goes in between 3 a.m., 4 a.m., to start the bakery stuff. It was just really hard for her to do, and she said she stopped shopping there,” Timson said of her friend’s experience. “[She] said the rats are just … so in your face. They’ll just dart across a box, and then a bottle, and then up and down, and then all over the bread wall.”

Timson said she finds it impossible to believe the rats have not been into the food people buy, or the materials used to make food at the bakery.

“For her to see it in the bakery, I can only imagine how many huge containers of flour they might have back there. I would never get anything made at that bakery,” Timson said.

The Emerald could not confirm these details directly with Timson’s friend, before deadline.

Salisbury, the man who started the petition, has lived in his house near the Othello Safeway since 1997, but rarely visits the store. He has a car, so he can go elsewhere for the foods he and his family want and need. So, he does. The only reason he stepped foot into the Othello Safeway in late April was because his wife forgot to ask him for popsicles or ice cream, before he headed out to Whole Foods.

Salisbury had bought expired food from that Safeway in the past, but had shrugged off his anger. Over the last several years, complaints about the store have been a regular occurrence in his social media feed, but he rarely visits it himself these days. He shops elsewhere, due to the stories he’d heard about the place. That evening, he witnessed what his neighbors had been complaining about firsthand and was so shocked by what he saw that he took several videos inside the store. Not only were people not bothering to social distance in lines that stretched down the aisles, but many people weren’t wearing masks, he said. He also said he didn’t see anyone bothering to wipe down registers or card machines.

Salisbury’s video shows a checkout line at the Othello Safeway in late April 2020. Video courtesy of Chukundi Salisbury.

Salisbury also noted that prices at that Safeway were distinctly higher than the Whole Foods he had just visited, even though the selection was of lower quality. He still had his Whole Foods receipt in his pocket, he said, and decided to pull it out to compare prices.

“I go over to the bell peppers. They’ve got these beat-down bell peppers that look terrible. … Everybody knows that the produce is terrible at our Safeway. But what I took exception with was the fact that the bell peppers was a dollar a piece. … And I just went and got two bell peppers for $1.43 [at Whole Foods],” Salisbury said. “So, then I went over and got the 18-pack of organic eggs, and it was [more expensive] than Whole Foods. So, the organic eggs at Whole Foods were $5.99, and they were [$6.49] at Safeway.”

Salisbury’s video showing the price of eggs at the Othello Safeway in late April 2020. Video courtesy of Chukundi Salisbury.

In an email to the Emerald, Safeway said that “the Othello store receives the same produce, and it’s [sic] prices are identical, [sic] to any other store in Seattle.” It did not address the higher prices in comparison to Whole Foods.

After digesting what he had seen and experienced, Salisbury said he went online to review what he’d read in the past, and to see if meeting with the manager would make a difference. According to several comments he found on Facebook, talking with the manager had proven fruitless, in part because there appeared to be frequent manager turnover. To Salisbury, this meant that anyone running the store probably had a lack of historical knowledge about the conditions the neighborhood has dealt with for decades. People said they also had left comments through the store website’s comment form. The form promised someone would get back to them. Weeks later, they were still hearing crickets.

In its email, Safeway said that customers who have concerns are encouraged to contact the district manager.

“Othello community groups have previously reached out to us seeking assistance, and management has been very responsive,” the email read. “We will continue to assess how we can better serve the Othello community, and make adjustments and improvements where necessary. We welcome community involvement in this process.”

Despite what he’d heard from others, Salisbury decided to meet with the manager. He recalled the basics of the conversation for the Emerald: “I asked him, ‘Why don’t we have the social distancing out here?’ And he said … the store was really never over capacity. And I was like, ‘Okay, well, that doesn’t sound right.’”

So, Salisbury decided to start a petition. Overnight, the petition he created through Change.org and posted to Facebook on April 29 garnered hundreds of signatures, and several people piled into the post’s comment section. A few of them restated what he’d heard, including a claim from a past shopper that, when asked why the store was understaffed and why there were never any improvements, the response she got was vague: “the store loses money.”

Megan Kelso said she feels sorry for the store’s staff. Kelso has shopped at that Safeway since she and her family moved to the neighborhood in 2008, and said that though the staff in the store are unfailingly friendly and patient, customers still have to wait in “incredibly long lines” that stretch down the store’s cramped and narrow aisles, due to understaffing.

“I’m looking at people who I know work really hard, and their time is being wasted. And I think about all the beautiful grocery stores in other parts of the city with plenty of staffing where people can breeze in and breeze out and it’s no big deal,” Kelso said. “And people who shop at this store, it’s like you have to put in a good, solid 45 minutes, sometimes. … It just seems so cruel and disrespectful and discriminatory.”

Kelso said she is fortunate that she doesn’t have to go to that grocery store often. Currently, she goes about once per week, but before the pandemic hit, she went several times a week to pick up things she’d forgotten from making her usual grocery rounds at other stores. Every time she goes, though, she worries about getting hit in the — in her words — “unsafe and jacked-up” parking lot. She said the parking lot appears to have a number of contradictory, faded directional arrows on the cracked and pothole-ridden concrete.

“I’ve almost been hit as a pedestrian. I’ve almost hit other cars, before. It’s the most confusing parking lot,” Kelso said. “And the cement’s all cracked up, and there are horrible puddles in the winter, and you see little old ladies and women in hijabs are having to wade through these ridiculous puddles. It’s ugly and depressing and rundown, and genuinely unsafe.”

Salisbury’s video of the Othello Safeway parking lot in late April 2020. Video courtesy of Chukundi Salisbury.

She also learned via Salisbury’s Facebook post containing the petition that the prices at the store are distinctly higher than at the Whole Foods downtown. She said she has never done a comparison herself, but in the course of talking with an older neighbor who has lived in the Othello neighborhood for decades, Kelso learned that there used to be an Albertsons grocery store in the area that Kelso’s neighbor believes provided enough competition for the Safeway to keep the quality of its food and store conditions high. But, after the Albertsons closed, he said, he noticed a distinct decline in that store’s quality.

Kelso said that while she has never personally experienced a problem with the quality of the food, she said that when she first started shopping at the store in 2008, the produce selection was “really wretched.” She thinks it started getting better in 2015, and said she gives Safeway credit for improving that. Still, she’s angry at what she perceives as price-gouging.

“I think that it probably has to do with the fact that Safeway thinks of that as a money-losing store, so they do whatever they can to make it up, but that just seems so unfair,” Kelso said.

Both Kelso and Salisbury think the reason this store is in such bad shape is because of corporate’s perception of the customer base, many of whom are refugees and immigrants. Salisbury speculated that Safeway corporate may assume that the current store conditions are excellent, compared to what they used to be. Still, he said, this doesn’t make it right. The building in which the store is housed has always been “right next to the projects,” Salisbury said, a place most have viewed as “a dumping ground.”

“This is a generational issue. … [My friend] talked about how it got worse when the Vietnamese refugees came, and the store got even worse. They were protesting in the late ‘70s about that — how they’ve had expired meat, and poor produce, and just poor conditions for a half century, at this point,” Salisbury said, echoing Kelso’s neighbor’s recollections. “A lot of new people new to the neighborhood or new to Seattle — they didn’t have the context that this store’s been crapped on for decades. And it definitely has something to do with the fact that, you know, this is the most diverse community in Seattle.”

Kelso echoed Salisbury’s sentiments, saying that she believes Safeway is discriminating against the people who shop at the Othello location, due to the neighborhood’s overall financial status.

“It just felt like the store was being discriminated against, because most of the clientele was poor, and probably the store didn’t make Safeway a lot of money,” Kelso said. “It felt like they put the bare minimum of staffing in, because it wasn’t a big moneymaker, and didn’t seem to bear any relationship with the actual number of shoppers.”

Timson agrees that the store’s conditions have to do with the population it serves. Just because there is a Link light rail station nearby doesn’t mean that everyone can use it to make grocery runs to another store, due to age, or mental or physical disabilities, she said. Moreover, living in poverty often means one doesn’t have a car or a license.

“Poverty leads to no license. You get a ticket, you can’t pay that ticket, your license is pulled. That is how so many poor people don’t have a driver’s license. So many people are taking jail risks driving to the store, also,” she said.

Based on her work with a local nonprofit that helps people who have been trafficked, Timson also said she believes there is a large portion of the immigrant and refugee population that suffers from serious, unaddressed trauma, which makes it feel safer to them to keep quiet, instead of speak out for better conditions.

“I know in a lot of traumatized and exploited marginalized communities that’s what [it is like],” Timson said. “I do a lot of advocacy for human trafficking. I’m a survivor myself of childhood exploitation and trafficking. So, that is always a standout point to me. So many people who are sex trafficked are just trying to come here for a decent opportunity, and instead they are fooled. And so many people that come from a traumatic or non-supported background are also in that same predicament, whether they were born here or somewhere else.”

But a person’s background and what they are used to shouldn’t matter, she said: “We deserve fresh food around here. We deserve high expectations of our food around here.”

“We are looked at as a poor community, economically, and we are looked at as a community of people from other countries [compared to which the Othello] Safeway makes their shopping in their [old] communities look pristine,” Timson continued. “But it doesn’t matter, because we have the expectations that are set by our FDA and … everybody deserves to have that.”

Safeway said in its email to the Emerald that the Othello Safeway “receives the same level of feedback” as other stores and that the company has made improvements accordingly.

“In the past year, such improvements include bringing in self-checkout lanes, new fixtures in the produce and bakery departments, exterior painting, parking lot restriping, additional exterior lighting in partnership with the community’s ‘park’ project adjacent to our store, and the most recent ‘Center Store’ refresh,” the email read. “In addition, the interior of our stores will continue to be rejuvenated over the next few months, and the parking lot will be restriped again.”

Safeway did not address the allegations of rats, expired food, understaffing, or lack of social distancing measures.

Salisbury hosted a virtual meeting over Zoom with a few community members on the evening of May 26 to decide on next steps and, due to low turnout, made a plan to hold another virtual meeting at a later date. 

The small group discussed their experiences shopping in the store, as well as what they had learned by talking with Safeway corporate. New Holly resident Cynda Rochester said during the meeting that from her interactions with the company, she came away with the understanding that, unless the store is profitable, Safeway corporate won’t invest any more money in it. She also said that this particular store was a big target for shoplifters, according to data released by the Seattle Police Department, when it was still publicly posting such data.

The group also came up with a few ideas, including reaching out to King County District 2 Councilmember Girmay Zahilay, Seattle City Councilmember Tammy Morales, and local environmental justice nonprofit Got Green with an invite to the next Zoom meeting. They also considered sending out a community survey to address top concerns, and creating a Facebook group dedicated to the group’s aims, as well as creating flyers to get the word out about the meeting to the immigrant and refugee community that may not use Facebook or have limited access to social media.

“I just want [Safeway] to take some pride in it so we can take some pride in it,” Salisbury said, during the virtual meeting.

The group set a date of June 9 to deliver the petition to Safeway.

An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Rochester had said a part of Safeway corporate’s rationale for not investing in the store was due to shoplifting. Rochester said the Emerald misinterpreted her words.

Featured image: A crow perches atop a shopping trolley stall outside the Othello Safeway in Seattle, Washington, on May 24, 2020. (Photo: Carolyn Bick)

Carolyn Bick is a journalist and photographer based in South Seattle. You can reach them here.

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