- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Top Banana grocery’s Brandywine headquarters - with its small aisles and employees in cheerful aprons - looks like a store from another era. The public, however, can’t shop there. Like the stores of the old days, Top Banana brings the groceries to its customers. It isn’t a retail operation; it is a nonprofit that has been helping senior citizens and others who have difficulty getting out to shop in Maryland and the District for more than 25 years. When carrying groceries becomes difficult, Top Banana becomes an important resource.

In the Internet era, many large grocery stores - Giant and Safeway among them - have resumed delivery operations. Type in your order on a Web site, and it appears, sometimes in a cooler on your porch. Top Banana’s personal approach goes beyond groceries, founder Jean Guiffre says.

Top Banana staffers are friendly voices on the other end of the phone. Delivery drivers have been known to change a light bulb or take out the trash for clients. They will deliver information about other senior resources and occasionally have saved a life.

“We save people’s lives every day,” Ms. Guiffre says, referring to the basic task of making sure people get the right food to keep them healthy. “But there have been [an] untold number of times we have found someone who has fallen. The drivers are not medically trained, so they can’t treat the customer, but they can make a phone call. We try to have emergency contact information for every customer. For a lot of customers, we are the only people they regularly see.”

Top Banana Home Delivered Groceries Inc. (www.topbananagrocer.org) began as a personal project for Ms. Guiffre, a former private investigator. One day in 1982, she went to her mother’s apartment in Hyattsville. The cupboard was bare even though the grocery store was a block away. Arthritis and heart disease made shopping difficult for Ms. Guiffre’s mother, but she didn’t want to ask family members to help.

“She just sat there and did without,” Ms. Guiffre says. “So I got a list and went and did her shopping. Within a few months, I was taking groceries to five of her neighbors.”

By the next year, after researching issues affecting senior citizens, Ms. Guiffre was in business, stocking the rooms of her house with canned goods, toilet paper and other household necessities. Top Banana was home-based until 1998, when the groceries had “taken over my entire house,” Ms. Guiffre says.

That’s when the operation moved into a former post-office building in Brandywine. The building has been outfitted with a wall of industrial-strength freezers and refrigerators to keep perishables fresh. Two full-time and 11 part-time employees serve more than 500 customers.

Customers are given a store guide from which they make their lists, and then they call Top Banana to place their orders. Prices are comparable to those at most major grocery stores. The delivery fee is $15, but Top Banana, which receives grant money from area senior organizations, offers a sliding scale to make it more affordable.

Making groceries affordable also is part of Ms. Guiffre’s vision. In the past year or so, prices of basics such as bread and milk have risen nationwide, sometimes rapidly from one week to the next. Though Top Banana is paying more to its wholesaler, it has kept its prices stable.

“I am really taking a hit,” Ms. Guiffre says, “but I can’t in good conscience pass [the price increases] on to people.”

Customers can get the basics - fresh fruits and vegetables - as well as convenience foods - canned soup and frozen dinners - from Top Banana. The store also stocks personal care items, pet food and household cleaning products.

Ms. Guiffre says she listens to requests from customers; if there is demand for a product she doesn’t carry, she will start ordering it. Top Banana delivers cigarettes but not alcohol, she says.

Mattie Miles, 88, calls the assistance from Top Banana “a beautiful relationship.”

“They bring me everything,” says Mrs. Miles, a widow in the District. “I don’t have to go out for anything.”

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