Rotten treatment spoils years of Farm Fresh effort

April 16, 1996|By MICHAEL OLESKER

Here is the way customers' allegiance to a food store ends, one familiar face after another.

Mike DiSantostefano, followed by Bonnie Brown.

Followed by LaVerne Krinkey, followed by Robin Wise.

Followed by Lauren Bryant, followed by Diane Nixon, followed by 87 more of the old Farm Fresh employees, fellows from the produce section and women from the deli counter and cashiers who know you by name, Greenspring followed by Arbutus and Southview, followed by ...

By whom? Well, mainly, followed by customers who loyally shop at places like Farm Fresh, or Metro Food Market, not only for the food, and not only for the prices, but for the people who work there year after year instead of standing out here the way they were the other day, on Smith Avenue in northwest Baltimore County, at the entrance to the Greenspring Shopping Center, where they marched around and carried signs.

"Shame On You, Metro," said one sign. "No Justice."

"Union Sold Us Out," said another. "Metro Kicked Us Out."

"Metro Lied," said a third. "Where Are Our Jobs?"

Gone, that's where.

Gone, the way Farm Fresh is gone now. Farm Fresh began disappearing in January, forced into bankruptcy amid allegations of multimillion-dollar fraud. It was bought by Richfood Holdings Inc., the Richmond-based wholesaler, which acquired eight Farm Fresh stores for $6.75 million.

Richfood handed over three of the stores -- Greenspring, Southview and Arbutus -- to a subsidiary, Metro Food Market, whereupon the most wonderful words began to be uttered, followed by actions that had no connection whatsoever to the wonderful words.

The new stores would be remodeled as "state of the art" facilities, said John Ryder, president of Basics and Metro Food Market.

"Yeah, that's what we heard," says Diane Nixon, a Farm Fresh employee for the past seven years, standing out here now with a sign in her hands. "They had us in here at 6 in the morning, cleaning up like maids. Then they let us go."

"They used us," says Robin Wise, a 10-year employee, "and then they brought in their own people."

"The stress," says Mike DiSantostefano, who has spent 14 years working deli for Farm Fresh, "has been unbelievable. You can't sleep nights. They took over the store and asked us to take pay cuts. OK, we took pay cuts. Then they wanted vacation cuts. OK, we took them, too. And they said we were on probation for 60 days where they'd evaluate us, where they're not supposed to take union dues out of our paychecks, and we stood for that, too. And one after another, they started laying us off."

Why? It's a little hard to say.

"It doesn't make sense," says Buddy Mays, president of United Food and Commercial Workers Local No. 27. "They've brought in all these Metro people to replace the old Farm Fresh people, who were actually making less money. They said they needed their people to run it 'the Metro way.' "

Bonnie Brown, shop steward at Greenspring, said, "Metro told us they would keep the Farm Fresh employees. Local 27 told us, 'Your jobs are safe; your jobs are protected.' Now they tell us, 'Hang in there; we're filing a grievance.'

"We don't know what to believe now. We took pay cuts, we gave up seniority, we did everything to keep our jobs, and we still lost our jobs. They said they were laying us off because of lack of work. But there was no lack of work, it was just them bringing in people from other Metro stores to replace us. It's still the same number of people in the store."

In a March 27 letter to Metro President Ryder, Mays called the layoffs "a wholesale purge ... an action which violates both in letter and spirit [of] the agreement that was reached only a few months ago with regard to the employment security of employees from the former Farm Fresh locations, and it is arbitrary and without just cause. We demand that the company ... reinstate all affected employees with full back pay, seniority rights and benefits."

Yesterday, Metro spokeswoman Lynn O'Donnell said, "I've been instructed to give you no comment."

Beautiful.

Here is the way allegiance to a food store ends: With customers walking in and seeing all new folks in the produce section, or the deli, or strangers at the checkout counter when it used to be those who knew you by your first name.

It ends with customers thinking about their own jobs, and sensing similar vulnerability. It ends with the familiar American story of big layoffs and cutbacks, and it ends with management issuing a terse "no comment" when 90 loyal employees are laid off.

And it ends with the disappearance of one familiar face after another: people who made a food store a place of comfort and friendliness, and thus a part of their customers' lives, and who now pay a price for a management that doesn't seem to have a clue.

Pub Date: 4/16/96

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