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Saturday, March 9, 2002 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Newport Hills neighborhood to lose Red Apple grocery

Seattle Times Eastside bureau

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If you're searching for a cold six-pack this weekend, bypass the Red Apple grocery in Newport Hills.

The beer cooler is bare as the only food store serving this south Bellevue neighborhood prepares to go out of business. There is no closing date yet — to fend off financial ruin, the independent store's three owners need to glean every available dollar from their inventory.

Then, the last loyal customers will join neighbors who drive 1½ miles downhill to QFC and Safeway in Newcastle.

For four decades, the store has been a gathering place where customers and employees knew each other by name. Like the recently closed QFC in Lake Hills, the Red Apple's passing illustrates a neighborhood's transition from post-World War II Boeing families to the new generation that prefers larger or fancier supermarkets.

"The community has been very receptive and supportive," said co-owner John Rinker, whose group operated the store since April 2000. "I don't feel like they've failed us at all. If anything, we failed them, though it was largely a matter of circumstance."

The Red Apple had trouble matching the lower prices and 2-for-1 specials offered by "the big guys" in the fiercely competitive supermarket industry, Rinker said. There also were costly breakdowns of old equipment, he said.

But what broke the store's back was the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, which decimated the air-travel industry and, in turn, sent sales plummeting at the owners' store in Normandy Park, where many Seattle-Tacoma International Airport workers live. That store closed in November, and its debt dragged down the Newport Hills store, Rinker said.

Since last fall, the Newport Hills store has released most of its 60 employees. The beer section has gone unstocked for weeks because vendors require cash, which Red Apple didn't have.

The store, with its own postal substation, evokes a slower age. While waiting to buy stamps Thursday, a man tapped his cane to "Slow Ride" by the 1970s rock band Foghat blaring from the speakers, instead of the softer music in chain stores. Regular shoppers and employees greeted each other by name.

Longtime resident Connie McCullough, 71, remembers when the property, 5606 119th Ave. S.E., was a wooded lot, and she sawed down a Christmas tree there. The grocery opened in the mid-1960s as a Tradewell, and her family of eight bumped into friends there.

"I've seen the many changes in the neighborhood, including changes in the store. It's expensive, and now it's closing due to a poor economy and a lack of children," McCullough said. The little store is ideal for her because she has lung problems and cannot push a shopping cart far, she said.

The city and retail-property owners are attempting a neighborhood face-lift that would someday convert the nearby Stod's Baseball batting-cage hall (a former grocery store) into shops and 48 condos or apartments, while renovating the sidewalks and shops on both sides of 119th.

Though losing Red Apple is a setback, Ellen Miller-Wolfe, city economic-development-program manager, thinks a similar-size but trendier grocery, resembling the Lakemont Thriftway in east Bellevue or Admiral Thriftway in West Seattle, could make it in Newport Hills.

Mike Lindblom can be reached at 206-515-5631 or mlindblom@seattletimes.com.

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