Woes at Wegmans

Wegmans flagship Rochester store, with slight alterations
  Some years ago, in the course of one of my long roadtrips, I visited some friends in Rochester NY.  As I was parting company with them, they recommended stopping at a particular favorite supermarket of theirs, to stock up on food for the road and to just go *see* the place.  It was, in fact, the flagship Wegmans store -- the one (mis)represented here, and it was truly impressive.  It was huge inside, seemed to have *everything*, and in particular offered a good bulk section where I could build myself some really optimal trail mixes and then pick up some yummy deli stuff for that day's lunch on the go.

I didn't think to wander in barefoot at the time, but the place seemed very oriented toward healthy offerings and caring customer service so perhaps their philosophies would be progressive in some other regards as well.  Since I'm generally not in Rochester, I didn't think about it further.  But then later I learned that Wegmans was expanding eastward, and was in fact building a couple of Boston-area locations.  Awesome, I thought, remembering my past experience; it seemed like they'd be a good fit for the area.  It then took me quite a while to actually get around to trying them again, since the nearest location in Burlington was still well off my beaten path.  I threw the flats on for the first couple of trips there just to head off having "the conversation", and found that while the new store was well stocked with a strong emphasis on prepared meals, it wasn't quite as overwhelming as Rochester.  That was okay, it was still interesting to poke around a couple of times.  Pricing generally seemed on par with other mainstream stores in the area, the "house" brands of product were quite acceptable, and the bulk section here was okay but didn't seem as varied.

In the interim my enthusiasm toward kicking the shoe habit had gotten stronger, along with my outward activism around the merits of that and "walking the talk" including where many still fear to go unshod.  One afternoon I took a nice little hike around Horn Pond, getting some more rigorous "exercise for the sole".  Plenty of sharp rocks and gravel and broken glass around the power lines and old reservoir, as it's a fairly popular spot.  Afterward I decided to bop over to Burlington and give these same feet a whirl on the still-shiny new floors at Wegmans.  It didn't take long for the day to turn rather sour.  Barely fifty feet inside the door, some completely random guy in the produce area said to me "you need to leave!"  Huh??  He was *not* a store employee; he was in fact a rather ratty-looking blue-collar specimen wearing a dirty white t-shirt.  There, have I expressed prejudice through someone's appearance?  Sure, but does that give me any excuse to harass him about it?  Of course not, but here was the reverse going on, unbidden and unwanted.  I asked "who are you??", and he shot back "I'm *me*!" like that was going to make any difference.

I ignored this yahoo and kept wandering, but about two more aisles into it I was rudely descended upon by the store goon-squad.  No less than *three* managerial types came and surrounded me, like I was some kind of terrorist, with the one in the lead named "Will" doing most of the talking.  In tow he also had Jeff and some woman without a name tag who actually refused to identify herself, saying only "I work with them."  Will then proceeded to spout an agressive fountain of lies, first claiming that he was the head manager of the store [he wasn't], and then that there was some kind of local regulation against bare feet, and when I immediately refuted that, proceeded to the usual nonsense about "it's a food safety issue" and then the typical "you might step on something."  What was interesting was how he *refused* to take one of my informational cards for where he could find the facts on the matter -- here was a prime example of extreme foot paranoia, including active avoidance of any evidence to the contrary.  While spewing his stream of nonsense he effectively had his fingers stuffed into his ears, saying "la-la-la-la-dont-want-to-hear-it" against anything I tried to tell him.

I got him to quiet down for a second, said "okay, watch carefully", and slowly pulled the china-flats out of my back pocket and put them on.  I then said "okay, so what's different now?" and before he could answer, continued with "now you have put me at much GREATER risk of having a slip and fall incident.  Is that what you wanted?"  Apparently it was, because after a little more back and forth, in which he claimed to know what's in the FDA food safety code despite having obviously never dipped into it, he and his little mall-cop army finally retreated.  But not before I assured him I'd have the Burlington health officials down there to straighten him out on the "food safety" issues, and that Wegmans corporate was certainly going to get a strongly-worded complaint about his unprofessional and perhaps career-limiting behavior.  Policy or not, there was no need to treat me like I'd walked into the place buck-naked.

Yeah, I really "got their best" that day, didn't I.  They actually hire people with inexcusably hostile attitudes like this as *managerial staff*?!  Time to step up that psychological profiling, guys.

I finished my shopping, but as I expected it was hard to keep my mind on that job after dealing with that kind of blatant bullying.  I then posted a fairly impassioned account of the day on the SBL list, asking what experiences others had with Wegmans.  I was on the phone to the Burlington health department the following Monday morning, where they were actually rather sympathetic and said "we'll handle it", and would stop by sometime that week and have a converation with Will about his misrepresentations.  Then I went hard after Wegmans consumer-affairs department, laying a bitter complaint on them about my experience and how all this emphasis on footwear is pointless and harmful and sets a company up for legal responsibilities they probably didn't expect.  On a callback from that a while later I learned that Will was *not* the general manager of that location; instead I had a fairly pleasant conversation with Jason, the real manager at Burlington.  He said that my report had stirred up a bit of a hornet nest in Rochester, but they wanted him to talk to me as the guy closest to the quote scene of the crime unquote. 

It turned out that Jason and his wife are both fairly active, and take a "minimalist" approach to things like their athletic footwear choices.  She teaches pilates and is all over the barefoot and natural training thing, and they both do some amount of running.  But even with his awareness of newer science about feet and footwear, from childhood and through his 17 years with Wegmans he had always thought that "no shoes, no shirt, no service" was just "the way things were" in food retail and never questioned it.  So I had to go through busting the four or five major myths for him.

  • The legal people in Rochester were already aware that feet and food have nothing to do with each other, so I didn't have to get into that.
  • Their main concern seemed to be the typical groundless safety fears; I detailed for him my little hop around Horn Pond and some of the terrain I found and handled without any problem.  Shopping cart wheels?  Any other customer's carriage close enough to endanger my feet would be stopped or avoided long beforehand. In fact, the most likely person to contact my feet with a cart is me, and I sometimes use my feet to guide them along. 
  • Jason also didn't really understand the legal duty-of-care situation that shifts liability away from a premises when it comes to external factors like patron choices in dress. 
  • Then he touched on the "it's a private company" grey-area, but because it's still a public accomodation that generally isn't allowed to discriminate, that's where nobody ever agrees. 
  • Somewhere during this he hinted that some other customer had complained; probably my scruffy "Me!" buddy, and I asked what possible business of his was anyone else's attire.  Are store managers expected to wander around picking people at random to tell "someone else thought you're ugly, you need to leave"?  Hardly.

Jason did seem quite sympathetic as to where I was coming from, and picked up a lot of good info from our chat.  He seemed to genuinely understand how the flow of any of these conversations should ideally play out:
    THEM:   "Sir, we recommend wearing something on your feet here."
        ME:   "Thanks, I'm all set, I don't wear shoes anymore"
    THEM:   "Okay, well, watch your step -- have a nice day!"
But he said it was still up to Corporate, and that if a change was coming it would take some time and that if he heard of anything beneficial, he'd get in touch.

I wanted to believe that, or at least that the question would stay current on agendas that mattered.  I've since learned that given the slightest chance to ignore these complaints and sweep them under the rug, most corporations will do it.  I had a little traveling to do in the interim, but I kept thinking that maybe they didn't have all the information they needed in Rochester and that they hadn't actually evaluated the suggested legal ramifications at all.  Anticipating that simply delegating back to Jason might have made them believe that the matter was closed and off their desks, I later sent a followup email for them to add to the case and keep it open.

Four more months went by, and nary a peep came out of them, not even a simple acknowledgement of receiving that email.  With another roadtrip ahead as motivation to wrap up some dangling details, I finally decided to take it straight to the top in a more formal way.  The company info on the website makes no effort to hide its governance or address, so I composed up a physical, on-paper letter and sent it off via snailmail.  Apparently this delivery method still carries its share of weight in the corporate world; it shows that someone put a little more effort into their communication than just dashing off an email.  And I'd done a little more research in an effort to understand the company better, including coming across an item from when they stopped supporting tobacco use -- and figured that support for quitting other dependencies that cause long-term harm could be a good parallel to make.

I then blew out of town for a while, leaving Colleen and her cronies to sort things out.  But all they did was to dump the entire mess to someone in their legal department, who apparently couldn't be bothered to actually pay attention to anything I'd said or do his own research.  When I got home, this was waiting in my held mail.

Wegmans Food Markets Inc.
1500 Brooks Avenue, PO Box 30844
Rochester, NY 14603-0844

Joseph A. Carello
Labor and Employment Counsel

December 21, 2017

We are writing in response to your letter written to Wegmans Food Markets
Inc, ("Wegmans") dated December 1.  Thank you for writing to express your
concerns and for the supplemental information you provided through your
communication with our Consumer Affairs Department.

At Wegmans, we want to be a place where all customers have an enjoyable and
comfortable shopping experience.  This means creating a clean, safe, and
hospitable shopping environment.  Because of these values, we require
customers to wear shirt and shoes at all times when on Wegmans property.
Some of the reasons for this policy include:

1.  Ensuring the personal safety of each customer from potential hazards,
including, but not limited to, hot liquids, steam-heated prepared food
bars, broken glass, heavy or sharp falling objects, and other carts or
customers; or

2. Limiting claims for injuries in Wegmans stores, restaurants, parking
lots, and other property.

We also strive to ensure that our goods and services are accessible to all
members of the public, regardless of an individual's background.  If you
or someone you know require an accomodation based on a bona fide religious
belief or disability, please let us know so that we can explore ways to
effectively make our goods and services available.

We would like to thank you again for bringing this issue to our attention,
and for being a valued Wegmans customer.

Very truly yours,
Joseph A. Carello

Okay, now let's see how badly this junior paralegal got it wrong.  Labor and employment?  How does that relate to customer-facing issues?  This was positively insulting, with the number of points that he either completely missed or ran roughshod over.

Harassing customers over attire is not exactly how to create an enjoyable or comfortable atmosphere, and I believe that I would fall within the logical boundary of "all customers".  Regardless of the demographic that they *think* they're aiming at, all customers also includes the scruffy biker types, punked-out kids, Stanley-esque brutes like Mr. "Me!", wearers of blatant political or religious slogans, loud cellphone addicts, the slow-moving elderly and people who need a powered mobie-cart to navigate a store -- of all ethnicities, and all welcomed in and served without hesitation.  The physical environment I found inside was certainly clean and safe; it's that hospitality angle that still needs work.  So tell me, Joe, because nobody else has been able to, what science relates shoes and shirts to each other, and what warped "values" are you talking about?  Your items aren't values, they're fantasies.  Remember that your profession is supposed to deal in facts, not someone's subjective opinions and certainly not your own.  Bzzzzzt.

1.   At least fifty percent of the people in the store were slapping along in some sort of flip-flops, which might help protect against ONE of his five proffered hazards.  Customers in the habit of spilling boiling-hot soup onto their sandaled feet are apparently welcomed, as are those in the habit of ramming their shopping carts into other patrons.  With the quantity of objects that he implies so regularly hit the floor, it's a wonder that the store still looks like a store inside, rather than a bombed-out city in Syria.  Who told your stockers to put the heaviest "economy size" juice cans on the top shelf where my 80-something year old mom can just barely reach them?  Why wasn't she issued a hard hat at the door to this death-trap?

2.   I requested numerous times that people look up the law around duty of care, contributory negligence, and premises liability.  This buffoon clearly did not, and simply chose to parrot the usual prejudicial prattle and hold it up as legal self-insurance.  Now, envision a matter of foot injury fault brought to court, after the obvious and immediate motion is filed for summary judgement -- "You, the plaintiff, willingly walked into the store barefoot?  Heh, have a nice day.  We find for the defendant.  NEXT!"  In fact, the vast majority of liability cases involving footwear come from falls caused BY footwear, such as high heels or slippery soles.  And for the record, nobody cares about the parking lot, which is a far less benign environment -- their bigotry begins at the building wall.

I frankly cannot imagine how this guy can look at himself in the mirror in the morning after referring to me as a "valued Wegmans customer", in the process of confirming that I would be denied that honored privilege.  No, sorry, since you're obviously kicking my dirty barefoot hippie ass down the road toward TJ's, I think I'll go be a valued customer at any of your numerous rivals where it actually means something.  With less than 100 stores at the time of this incident, it's not like Wegmans is a critical resource in the Bay State food supply, so small loss in that regard.  But still worth a large rant as a particularly bad example.

I shared this letter with mailing-list colleagues before it finally made its way into a public webpage.  Commentary in response generally indicated that supposedly coming from a lawyer, the letter was pretty badly written.  The day someone goes after Wegmans with a discrimination lawsuit instead, which seems more likely than any action over a foot mishap, this guy will have no idea how to handle it.  If Mr. Carello is the best that Wegmans has on their side for defense, maybe that's actually worth trying.

_H*   180106 ish

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