By Alexander Tuerk
COLLEGE PARK – When construction began in early February on an empty lot of the former Clarion Inn, it was not another pizza restaurant, liquor store or Chinese take-out location that would take over the hotel’s place. Instead, the City of College Park welcomed Lidl, pronounced “lee-duhl,” a German supermarket chain that prides themselves on low prices and private brands.
On June 19, after almost five months of construction, the College Park Lidl opened to a line of customers that wrapped around the side of the building. Everyone from sophomores studying at the University of Maryland to lifetime Berwyn Heights residents arrived to welcome the area’s new grocery store.
In Oct. 2016, the College Park City Council and Prince George’s County Planning Board approved the site plan after the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) declared College Park a “food desert” in 2015. Census data showed that a significant amount of low-income residents did not have nearby access to affordable and fresh produce.
Without access to healthier food options, residents were putting themselves at risk of obesity, heart disease and other conditions related to a lack of nutrition, according to the USDA.
Currently, the options for students and residents without transportation are minimal between Whole Foods Market in Riverdale Park and the Giant grocery store in Greenbelt. USDA reported that those in food deserts might instead get their food from “quickie marts” such as 7-Eleven, resorting to “processed, sugar and fat-laden foods.”
“We’re trying to make grocery stores accessible for our students, so they don’t have to get in their cars and drive around and make Route One more congested,” College Park Mayor Patrick Wojahn said. “We’re trying to bring it to our neighborhoods so people can come here and be a part of our community.”
During the Lidl’s grand opening, a DJ played music through large speakers under a black awning while customers received a free Lidl tote bag and spun a wheel to win prizes like store gift cards. Before the ribbon was cut, the Lidl staff came out and danced to “Cha Cha Slide,” entertaining the crowd of new customers.
Even though the ribbon-cutting ceremony was scheduled for 7:40 a.m., the excitement was palpable. as Wojahn walked down the line and chatted with those would-be first customers. Once his microphone cut off, the mayor continued without it.
“I’m going to yell because I’m really excited about Lidl,” Wojahn said. “As a mayor, I get to be excited about things like grocery stores.”
Chen Xue Xian was the first person in line, arriving at 4 a.m. that morning, according to Lidl spokesperson Chandler Ebeier. He received a $100 gift card and a bouquet of flowers from the store’s employees.
Alex Nelson, a senior at the university, waited in line with two of his roommates. Originally there for the $100 gift card giveaway as part of Lidl’s opening-day festivities, the three students ended up exploring alternatives to the Aldi in Beltsville, where they usually shop.
“We’re here for the cheap prices,” Nelson said.
On a tour of the store, Ebeier pointed out several products she hopes customers will take notice of, from award-winning salami and cheese imported from Italy and Spain to the bakery poised strategically near the entrance and the seafood certified sustainable or responsibly sourced by the Marine Stewardship Council.
Along with fresh produce and cheap private brands, Lidl has also created 56 jobs for the area, according to manager Douglas Monson. He added that the initial store opening requires upwards of 75 employees to run smoothly.
“The team actually feels like a family, which is really nice, and what I shoot for from a management standpoint,” Monson said.
Store officials said an estimated 25% of his staff will be students from the university, and plans are to reach out to the campus in the fall to promote the new store.
The Lidl may not have been a possibility if it were not for the chain’s commitment to their East Coast development plans, said David Iannucci, president, and CEO of Prince George’s County Economic Development Corporation. Lidl planned to bring hundreds of stores to the East Coast but had to reconsider its strategy after purchasing sites returned poor foot traffic in 2017.
Iannucci said that Lidl instead renewed their efforts in expansion last year, but added that the College Park location had been planned as part of the company’s first push into the U.S.
Beyond corporate strategy, Iannucci said that the site brought its own issues: the Clarion Inn needed to be demolished first, and the corner location could not offer a parking lot that surrounded the store on all sides.
“There were some design issues that they made some significant compromises on, on behalf of the community,” Iannucci said. “The idea was to bring it right up to the road here, which I think is beautiful.”
The Lidl abuts Baltimore Avenue with only a sidewalk in between the road and the store, forcing a smaller parking lot that made finding a spot difficult at the store’s opening.
“The Bowie store, you couldn’t find a parking spot for a month (after the opening). It’s gonna be a month before this parking lot is routinely open,” Iannucci said.
Despite the parking scarcity and the crowded aisles, Lidl continued to see customers arrive throughout the grand opening morning. According to Ebeier, the opening marked Lidl’s 67th U.S. store, and with Census Day approaching on April 1, 2020, it may also mark a reconsideration of College Park’s food desert status as a new food option with affordable prices on fresh produce enters the market.
“We want to be a community store,” Monson said. “We want to be a neighborhood store.”