Tightening the Beltway, the Elite Shop Costco
RICHARD PERLE said he was game for a reconnaissance mission.
Mr. Perle, the neoconservative and former adviser to Donald Rumsfeld, offered to walk through his local Costco, pointing out the products that he said were increasingly drawing D.C. power shoppers like himself.
That Richard Perle? The gourmand with a home in Provence who once dreamed of opening a chain of soufflé restaurants?
Yes, Mr. Perle proudly shops in Costco’s cement warehouses stocked with three-pound jars of peeled garlic and jumbo packs of toilet paper. And he has no problem serving the store’s offerings to dinner guests.
“Because it should have been Dean & DeLuca?” he asked, sounding half incredulous and half amused. “I really think there’s a socio-cultural thing here, and people are entitled to their pretensions.”
As a recent article in Vanity Fair lamented, the days of glamorous Washington dinner parties are long gone. Indeed, some hostesses today aren’t above serving Costco salmon, nicely dressed up with a dollop of crème fraîche.
Mr. Perle said he shopped at Costco once a week when he was in town, and at a dinner party he held recently for several colleagues and friends, most ingredients were from there — the beef for his daube à la Provençal, the limes for his lime soufflé. The salmon for gravlax — also from Costco. He said he always received compliments, and he always got double takes when he told his guests where he shopped.
He’s not the only D.C. host or hostess to go big box.
“I do it — Costco all the way,” said the writer Sally Quinn, who is known for the power salons she puts on with her husband, the former Washington Post editor, Ben Bradlee, at her Georgetown town house. “I just started.”
Ann Jordan, the wife of Vernon Jordan, also calls herself “a big fan” and says she has used Costco food for parties, especially for the fund-raisers she held during the Clinton years. Ellen Bennett, a fine art photographer and the wife of Robert S. Bennett, President Clinton’s personal lawyer in the Paula Jones case, has thrown an open house “Costco party” each Christmas since 2004.
“Pigs in blankets, salamis, salmon, shrimp, pâté, cheese,” said Mrs. Bennett, remembering her parties.
Juleanna Glover, a lobbyist and former aide to Vice President Dick Cheney who is also known as a hostess, was an early convert. And, she added, almost as if confiding a secret, “You recognize the brownies and black and white cookies at some of the most prominent individuals’ homes.”
Susan Lacz, chief executive of Ridgewells, the largest catering company in the Washington area, said she knows the trend all too well. “My gosh, it drives me crazy,” she said. “Some of the people I hear are going to Costco, I think, ‘Oh, you must be kidding me.’”
The ultimate awkwardness, she said, is when clients want to buy their food from Costco but disguise it: “They’ll say: ‘Why don’t you bring the fancy glassware, and we’ll get the rest from Costco. And could you put it on one of your fancy plates? Oh, and how about some of your fancy ice cream on top?’”
Ms. Lacz said she was “not going to name names,” but that one of her best clients, a high-end retail store, told her, “We’re going to go to Costco and buy a bunch of stuff, and we want you guys to serve it.”
To which she replied: “No, you’re not.”
Entertaining in Washington has gone decidedly casual. No one has stepped in to duplicate Pamela Harriman’s or Katharine Graham’s elegant soirees, and the Iranian Embassy, which once served free-flowing Champagne and caviar, is long shuttered. “There used to be so many black-tie dinners at private homes,” said Buffy Cafritz, an honorary Kennedy Center trustee who also is known in Washington hostess circles. “Now everything is so much more informal, and we serve meatloaf instead of beef Wellington.”
(For the record, Mrs. Cafritz said she had never used Costco herself, but might get there before the holiday season ended. “I have a weakness for apple pie,” she said. “I’ve heard their apple pie is delicious.”)
Against the backdrop of an unpopular war, rising oil prices and a subprime mortgage crisis, a certain thriftiness seems to have crept into the city’s dining rooms.
“I don’t think anyone would dare serve caviar as a first course today, and instead of filet mignon, there are a lot of other beef dishes,” said Letitia Baldrige, the etiquette writer who was Jacqueline Kennedy’s social secretary. “Embassies don’t have the pocketbooks they used to. And to have these opulent menus for these parties here, it looks bad.”
In that sense, catering by Costco is a style statement, like drinking Pabst Blue Ribbon beer.
“Reverse chic is a very powerful phenomenon in status-oriented circles,” said David Kamp, the author of “The United States of Arugula” (Broadway, 2006), a book about the American fine-food revolution. “I think Costco is the same thing. It gets discovered.”
To its benefit, Costco has carefully fashioned an upscale-downscale image, and their stores do better in high-end locations, said the company’s chief financial officer, Richard Galanti. In the Washington area, the highest volume location is its store in the Pentagon City neighborhood of Arlington, Va.
“WE knew that we would attract government, we would attract ambassadors, we would attract military personal, we would attract the parties and embassies," said Joe Potera, the chief operating officer, referring to the Pentagon City store. "We have thousands of sheet cakes during all the major holidays for Pentagon parties, for ambassador parties, for staff parties in the capital. It’s kind of a destination." Costco also has a chocolate shop that produces molds of the Capitol as well as the Pentagon.
Ms. Baldrige said she saw no problem shopping for dinner parties at Costco.
“I would say bully for you, get the best deal you can,” she said. “Just don’t make that the main topic of conversation. Know a little bit about foreign affairs as well as how Costco is doing. Be able to be a little more scintillating other than being able to discuss the cost of your food.”
Bragging about the saving might be reserved for the brave few. One Washington hostess who loves Costco didn’t want people to know that her husband likes to hang out in the food court munching the quarter-pound hot dogs ($1.50 with a soda).
Mr. Perle knows no such shame. “The book section, the cheese section, the seafood, I almost always get some fresh produce there,” he said, rattling off his favorite Costco haunts. “I just bought chanterelles there the other day, and they often have fresh shiitake mushrooms.”
Perfect for a mushroom soufflé.