At one Farm Fresh, hope in midst of vulnerability


In the Farm Fresh produce section yesterday, there were signs advertising lettuce for 89 cents a pound and tomatoes for $1.19. But there was no lettuce, and there were no tomatoes. In the butcher shop, a guy behind the counter was telling a telephone caller, "No, sir, we don't have any product, and we're not getting any today." A bakery sign read, "Sorry, we are out of challah."

And yet, at this Farm Fresh at Greenspring Shopping Center, in northwest Baltimore County, they were breathing tentative sighs of relief yesterday. They were open. People could presumably look forward to a paycheck. Maybe all that nasty business in the morning newspaper could be worked out.

"Grocery chain's future in doubt," yesterday's front page story read. It was all about an alleged million-dollar check-kiting scheme, and loss of the supermarket's credit line, and how the 10-store chain would now be turned over to a court-appointed trustee.

"We're getting phone calls every hour telling us different things," one employee was saying, "but right now, they've got us placing orders for food, and that's the best sign they could give us."

For several days, the Farm Fresh stores could order all the food they wanted, but it didn't mean anything. The bills aren't paid, the food doesn't arrive. It's the same way in any business, or any household. All around this store now, there were shelves that once held toilet paper and coffee, juice and sodas. They were partially bare now. The butcher shop and fresh seafood section were completely empty. And there were only two cashiers working to handle the trickle of morning customers.

"We're gonna be all right," said store manager Philip Moffett. He was stacking canned goods, and he smiled with something approaching confidence.

A few feet from him, another employee, straightening price signs, said, "Sometimes you have to go through the worst of it to get to the best of it."

"I went through this once before," said another employee, cleaning up a half-filled bin. "With Acme, in '82. I don't want to go through any more store closings. Especially not Thanksgiving week, and all the Christmas shopping I have to do. And, let me tell you, last week was the most stressful time of my 26 years in this business."

For the moment, there seemed a sense of relief. Last week, as shelves began emptying, some customers began expressing frustrations: "What do you mean, you don't have this? What do you mean, you don't have that?"

But employees had no answers. They'd all heard the rumors since Wednesday -- about financial troubles, about troubles getting orders delivered, troubles that translated across the Farm Fresh chain the way they translate any place where people go to work for a living: Am I going to lose my job?

In America now, no one takes a job for granted. Layoffs and cutbacks and buyouts are the familiar orders of the day. At the Greenspring Farm Fresh, the store recently went through costly expansion. The place is rumored to be a gold mine, and this seemed the signal of even brighter times to come.

"I was so proud of it," said one employee, "that I brought my camera in and took pictures of the new look. You know, you feel proud of the place where you work. But this last week, I tell you, it's felt like a funeral around here."

Early last week, when Signet Bank cut off the entire chain's line of credit and rumors began to spread, employees here felt the same sense of vulnerability as people across the country.

Nothing seems to last any more. Once, people finished their schooling and found jobs that lasted a lifetime. In the places like Sparrows Point, such jobs were passed from one generation of a family to another, like heirlooms. Do such places exist any more?

In the new economy, impermanence seems here to stay. Employers want loyalty, but loyalty to what? To companies that quickly cut off workers at the knees when things get rough? Companies where people in high places are alleged to be playing fast and loose with money, and those working cash registers and meat slicers and dairy sections have to pay the price?

Farm Fresh has always had a classy reputation. The food is first-rate, the prices are reasonable, the employees uniformly helpful. Yesterday at its Greenspring store, a sign read, "Happy Thanksgiving from Our Family to Yours."

It's a nice sentiment, but the word "family" sounds a little hollow to people wondering if their father figures may have sold out the rest of the clan.

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