Annie-Marie Musselman
WHEN QFC ANNOUNCED PLANS TO BUY Matthew's Red Apple in Wedgwood last month, it sparked a wildfire of public protest. Responses included "Boycott QFC" bumper stickers and a Seattle Times opinion piece glorifying independent grocers. By contrast, when Roger's Thriftway, a neighborhood grocery store on Martin Luther King, Jr. Way and Union Street, changed to a Red Apple at the end of May, there was--according to one employee--"hardly a peep."

Of course there are fundamental differences between the two business transactions. QFC is part of Cincinnati-based Kroger, a $28 billion grocery chain. Moreover, the owner of Matthew's is fighting for his lease, while Roger's owner gladly sold his store.

But let's not kid ourselves. Even if Roger's were being bought out by QFC/Kroger, the transition would probably not have received the same city-wide attention as Matthew's did. While Roger's is an independent grocery, it's not in Wedgwood, it's in the Central District. The only newspaper which extensively covered the sale was The Facts, a CD publication. Seattle is obviously squeamish about looking directly at the issues that Roger's demise highlight: gentrification and changes in the lives of people sidelined from Puget Sound's economic boom.

Roger Bottman, who owned his namesake store for 23 years, is candid about the physical changes he has seen occurring in recent years. "On every block homes are being remodeled," he says. "Yuppies, or whatever you call them--middle-class and upper-class people--are moving in." Bottman charts the history of his store by the kind of alcohol he's carried over the years. He used to carry Mad Dog and Thunderbird; now there's a growing exclusive wine section.

The demographics in the Central District have flip-flopped since 1987, when median house prices were $46,000, over 65 percent of the population was black, and 27 percent of the residents lived at poverty level. In the '90s, people of color have been steadily migrating south to Renton, Skyway, and Kent. More middle- and upper-middle-class (white) people are moving into the neighborhood, driving up taxes. Real estate is becoming an investment game. In 1997, for example, the median house price was over $150,000 in the CD.

Because Bottman (who is white), prefers to work with blue-collar and middle-class clients, he's been glad to relocate in semi-retirement to his son's new Mountlake Terrace store. On May 30, Bottman turned over his keys and lease to Red Apple.

A closer look at Red Apple shows the stores aren't quite as independent as the Wedgwood controversy made them out to be. All Red Apple stores are part of Associated Grocers (AG), a major wholesale distribution co-operative, based at the south end of Boeing Field. Independent markets group together to buy through AG under names such as Red Apple, Marketplace, and Thriftway. Group buying and advertising helps cut prices for small stores. Grocery industry consolidation, however, has forced AG to play more like the big boys. That's why AG is joining forces with Oklahoma-based food wholesaler Fleming Cos.

In addition to expansion, AG, which owns the Roger's building, is surviving through buying real estate and playing landlord. Last October, AG re-assumed the lease on the only African-American-owned grocery store in Seattle, the MLK Market.

Lenny Rose, the new owner of Roger's--now Union Red Apple--is an enthusiastic man who talks about community. Rose was brought up in the Central District, and attended school in the surrounding neighborhoods. Along with his wife, Rose owns two other Red Apples--the Promenade store on Jackson Street and a store on Beacon Hill. He plans to give his new store a "big facelift," remodeling and cleaning up. However, Rose doesn't foresee any big changes in terms of employees. And he promises to carry ethnic foods.

Neighbors' first responses are mixed. Some people were glad to see a change, criticizing Roger's for substandard food, narrow aisles, and unfriendly checkers. Roger's was the fourth most expensive store in a 1990 survey of 14 Seattle stores, published by The Seattle Times.

Other neighbors are cynical. "I feel like Red Apple is getting a monopoly in the neighborhood," says Central District resident, Najja Morris-Taylor. "And no one is saying anything about it." Taylor is complimentary of how Red Apple hires young black men to work in the store, but she's quick to add, "there are no people of color who own supermarkets."

Ultimately, Taylor is concerned about the process of gentrification. "I think it's about banks and the whole red line thing where they won't help African American businesses."

She cautions the public: "There's a fine line between integration and gentrification. Racism up here in the Northwest is more on the down-low. Until there's a vote like I-200 or on gay rights, people think they're in a liberal place."

It happens as quietly as a store disappearing or changing owners.