- The Washington Times - Monday, May 22, 2000

The People Garden will sell wholesome food. It will not grow produce, as its name implies, but when the Northwest, Washington, D.C., store opens early next month, the owners hope to sow plenty of good will.

The vegetarian and organic produce outlet, an arm of the nonprofit Mount Pleasant Community Development Center on the site, is as much an ideal as it is a market. Its very existence is meant to inspire consumers to adopt healthy eating habits and living patterns.

As such, the People Garden is just the latest of a number of enterprising endeavors in a very "happening" neighborhood north of Adams Morgan and bounded by Rock Creek Park, the National Zoo and 16th Street, where the population is about equally black, Latino and white.

Many residents think of the area as a small town, with Mount Pleasant its Main Street.

The owners and partners are Jeff Brechbuhl, Greg Nicklas and Mr. Nicklas' wife, Joni Herman. The two men, both vegetarians, met four years ago at a community meeting. Both had dreamed of one day opening a store or restaurant that met their needs and reflected their philosophy that "food connects people and creates community." Mr. Brechbuhl also runs the community development center.

"You have to really care about what you put into your body," Mr. Brechbuhl says.

The People Garden will begin life as a deli and takeout market. The owners plan eventually to expand into a restaurant with catering and a sidewalk cafe.

Mr. Brechbuhl, who has a master's degree in applied anthropology, most recently ran a weekly delivery service that brought organic produce, freshly squeezed juices and fresh baked breads to customers' homes.

Mr. Nicklas, a former member of Advisory Neighborhood Commission 1E, is a real estate developer. Ms. Herman is a former Peace Corps worker whose employer, Training Resources Group, helps humanitarian organizations that work overseas.

"This ZIP code," Mr. Nicklas says of 20010, "has the highest percentage of returned Peace Corps workers in the city. It's always been a mixing place."

To some extent, the store represents Peace Corps ideals that have come home to roost.

The store's 12 full-time employees, called "employee team associates," are black, Latino, Hispanic and Asian a mirror image of the area's cultural diversity. They have been receiving training in "team building" and, in addition to benefits, are being paid a third more than the average wage for service workers.

Two of the 12 formerly were custodial employees at the gym Mr. Brechbuhl frequents.

The partners' dreams don't come cheap. The project has cost more than $1 million to get off the ground. Much of the money was spent on renovating a handsome but rundown building that once housed a combination used-clothing and vitamin store.

A longtime tenant, Xariel Travel, will stay on the premises at much less than the going rate for street-front commercial property, the partners say.

Until doors are opened officially the owners must meet a $12,000 weekly payroll for ongoing construction work alone.

To make the dream happen, Mr. Nicklas and Ms. Herman took out a second mortgage on their Lamont Street NW home. Nevertheless, they weren't about to stint on a planned two-day party to celebrate their debut, even if shelves and self-service containers had not yet been stocked.

About 400 friends and neighbors crowded into the store the nights of May 10 and 11 to taste-test the planned deli menu and take a look around while a three-piece band played in the hall. Mr. Nicklas, a Mount Pleasant resident for 17 years, said he knew at least 80 percent of the guests.

Alberto Velandia, an artist and full-time store employee, arranged the display of food for a buffet that included stuffed grape leaves, falafel, orzo primavera, lentil salad and pesto potato salad.

Local artist Rita Elsner, who had done a mural for Georgetown's Fresh Fields store, created a colorful wall painting that mixed fruit and vegetable characters amid harvest scenes.

On May 9, the front door had yet to be installed and workmen still had not finished laying the dark marble slabs that cover the steps. Tin flower holders sat empty. Local caterer Prisca Weems "a Mount Pleasant resident for 30 years," she said proudly offered to cook orzo for 200 in her home kitchen nearby. Mr. Brechbuhl said he would make the lentils.

Employees circulated through the crowd both nights with samples of the fresh fruit drinks featured on the menu. Ten percent of future sales of a line of blended fruit and vegetable drinks called "Social Smoothies" will benefit local organizations and projects just one of eight philanthropic efforts listed on the People Garden's mission sheet.

WHAT: The People Garden

WHERE: 3155 Mount Pleasant St. NW

WHEN: 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. and 4 to 9:30 p.m. Mondays through Fridays, 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Saturdays, 9 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Sundays, beginning the first week of June.

PHONE: 202/232-4753



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