The grocer ordinance: it seemed like a good idea at the time | Neighborhood News | Chicago Reader

The grocer ordinance: it seemed like a good idea at the time 

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At first it seemed like such a good idea, maybe the best the Daley administration had had in a long time. The city was proposing an ordinance that would require all grocers to take a one-day, seven-hour, $20 course on the rules and regulations of operating a grocery store.

"The idea was to help grocers as much as consumers," says Caroline Shoenberger, commissioner of the Department of Consumer Services. "It would be like one-stop shopping for grocers, where they could find easy access to all the information regarding all the applicable laws."

The proposed ordinance was approved by a City Council committee on July 12, only to be knocked cold by an avalanche of opposition from grocers and retail groups, who denounced it as unrealistic, unnecessary, and ineffective. Anything else? "Yes," says Gary Rejebian, vice president of marketing and communications for the Illinois Retail Merchants Association. "It's goofy."

Reporters from both downtown dailies mocked a "do-good" part of the course that would subject grocers to a one-hour lecture on human relations. Amid all the complaints the administration hastily retreated, promising to make all sorts of revisions.

"There were some concerns expressed," says Shoenberger, choosing her words carefully. "It's the nature of the democratic process to present ideas in public forums and give people a chance to express their points of view."

The proposal was the product of a task force of city officials, merchants, and business professors put together by Shoenberger to deal with a wide range of complaints, particularly in poor areas of the city, where residents have only a handful of grocery stores to choose from. In the shelves and coolers of some stores in those areas, city inspectors had discovered traces of roaches and rodents as well as cartons of dangerously old, nearly rancid butter, milk, and eggs.

"We found a loaf of bread with a rat hole in it," says Shoenberger. "We found one place where they kept the milk cold with a fan. We found another store owner who turned off his cooler when it got cold outside because he wanted to save money on electricity. One of our investigators once stepped on a mouse. It was in a little store in Bridgeport, a store that's no longer in existence."

There were chronic complaints from low-income neighborhoods of storekeepers who didn't issue receipts or who trailed customers as if they were shoplifters. "We had a case where food-stamp recipients were being taxed for food they purchased," says Shoenberger. "That is federally prohibited."

These complaints were the source of tension and even violence between consumers and merchants. To help grocers get along with their consumers, the city's Commission on Human Relations produced a guide called "How to Protect Your Rights and Practice Good Business and Community Relations."

"Not having good community and customer relations can lead to disputes, complaints to city agencies, bad publicity, boycotts, and most importantly lost business," reads the guide, which goes on to suggest that merchants know local residents on a personal level, hire local residents as much as possible, learn as much as they can of the language residents speak, and help sponsor local youth or social service groups.

"These are just suggestions, not edicts," says David Morris, deputy commissioner of the city's Commission on Human Relations. "It's good business to get along with your neighbors." The commission's tips were to be part of the course for grocers, which also included presentations by the city's fire, streets and sanitation, consumer services, health, revenue, and building departments on everything from rodent control to labeling requirements.

"I can understand that they would want grocers to know all the regulations," says Rejebian. "But why not publish a manual that retailers can refer to when they need help? Why make them truck downtown for a course?"

Some grocers say the one-day course would result in undue hardship.

"I run a ma-and-pa operation from eight in the morning until ten at night--seven days a week," says Gus Di Santo, who owns a store at 9600 S. Avenue M on the city's far southeast side. "This is not a Jewel where I've got a management assistant I can send downtown for some course. This is me and my wife. Is the city going to pay me for the loss of revenue? Oh no, they want to make me pay them 20 bucks for the right to lose a day's worth of sales. Now tell me how that makes any sense."

Di Santo says the proposal underscores the city's intolerance to neighborhood grocery stores. "Sometimes I think they want to drive us out of business," he says. "Mayor Daley took the $150 cigarette license and raised it to $300. Then the state adds a 14-cent tax on cigarettes. I'm four blocks from the Indiana state line, where they don't have that tax: tell me I'm not going to lose any customers. Then Daley institutes a beverage tax, which is a penny on every can. And you wouldn't believe my property taxes. The taxes in this building used to be $600 a year. Now they're $2,400. Next thing you know they'll be $3,000--for this old, wooden-frame building? Ridiculous."

Di Santo says he resents the suggestion that city officials know more than he does about customer service. "I was born and raised right down the street, at 9626 Avenue M. I've got some 50-odd years right on this block. It used to be Serbians and Italians; now it's mostly Hispanic. So what, I treat customers the same. If someone buys a product and comes back and says, 'Gus, this is no good,' I say, 'Here's your money.' What, am I going to give them an argument? I'm going to give it back to my wholesaler anyway. I'm not here to fleece the people. Everything is marked.

"I run a good business, just like my father did. He started this store in 1939. When I got out of high school he told me it was either go to school or go to work. That was in 1947, and I've been working ever since. The only day I close the store completely is Christmas. I haven't had a vacation since 1969. My father raised me to work 12 hours a day and smile. I got three sons, but the last thing they want to do is work here. I guess the younger generation don't want to slug out 84 hours a week. But now I don't know. I'm 62 and I don't even know if I want to stay in business in this city anymore."

"Originally, we wanted to be more nurturing in our approach to the grocers, but the proposal was turning them into victims," says 47th Ward Alderman Eugene Schulter, chairman of the council's license committee. "For example, it was pointed out that some poor soul might be forced out of business if through an oversight he failed to take the course."

The proposal suddenly seemed rife with drawbacks, particularly as officials considered the logistical headaches of forcing some 6,000 grocers to sit through seven hours on the intricacies of the city code.

"It's amazing what you can learn through a process," says Schulter. "In this case, I learned how a wonderful idea can turn into a massive undertaking. Things were pointed out to us. Should we offer the courses in languages that the grocers understood, like Korean? Should we offer them in the neighborhoods? And maybe we could condense them. It doesn't have to be seven hours long."

The city was also derided for the human relations portion of the course, which most reporters dismissed as some sort of silly hand-holding exercise.

"It was played up as sensitivity training, which it never really was going to be," says Morris. "We would explain how the Human Relations Commission operates so [the grocers] would know how to avoid having complaints lodged against them. Some people were complaining that government can't legislate how people treat each other. But that's exactly what the law does--we're supposed to promote mutual respect."

In any event, Schulter says he probably will amend the proposed ordinance to make the course voluntary. Administration officials say they will go along with whatever changes the council makes.

"There were a lot of consumers who didn't think [the proposal] went far enough," says Shoenberger. "But we'll live with what the council passes--that's the way democracy works."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/David Schulz.

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