Mixed emotions were the norm at Westside Market on Friday, the supermarket's last day after 30 years at its location on Broadway near 110th Street. With development plans pending for the building and the store's lease set to expire at the end of May, Westside had been scheduled to close on May 4.
According to John Zoitos, son of owner George Zoitos, it no longer made sense to operate the store. "We were shooting for May 4, but we ran out of merchandise. The payroll was exceeding the income," he said.
On Friday, the store was packed with shoppers eager to take advantage of a 50-percent markdown. Customers filled their carts with bags of bargain cat food, crackers, and olive oil. By late afternoon, the shelves held only low-carb beer, Campbell's Soup, tired-looking vegetables, and other miscellaneous products.
The sad but eager shoppers in the store contrasted sharply with the bitter employees outside of it. A number of employees expressed anger at their treatment and, knowing that they'd soon be fired, took the opportunity to explain what they'd seen during their years at Westside Market.
Modou Dia, who worked at Westside for 17 years, said, "I work 72 hours a week for the last 10 years. I never got no holiday, no sick pay, no overtime, no vacation. No even 'thank you.' He no even tell us he gonna close [today]."
Liapat Ali, who worked in the deli section at Westside for 17 years, said, "The store made money from selling expired food. They would repackage things after they expired and resell them. ... I'm 51 years old. Where am I gonna go? No pension, no severance, nothing."
Zoitos responded to the claim about expired food by saying, "I don't think there's any truth to that. The reason we have all these loyal customers is because we give quality stuff. If we were doing what he was saying, we wouldn't be this successful."
He added, "It's a messed-up situation; what could we possibly do? Instead of being pissed with us, [the employees] are pissed at us."
Ali and others also claimed they received no protection from their union, RWDSU/UFCW Local 338--which also represents workers at Morton Williams Associated Market--because the owner would pay off the union representative who visited once a month. George Santiago, Vice President of Local 338, was present at the store on Friday but refused to comment. He told the store's employees to come back next Friday to receive any money they were owed.
Complaints about Local 338 recalled similar complaints by workers at Morton Williams. Workers there complained that Local 338 helped facilitate drastic pay cuts and large-scale firings when Morton Williams purchased University Food Market from its longtime owner Charlie Pastor. Santiago is the union representative for Morton Williams as well. He also declined to comment in that case.
Lesay Hampta, who worked at the store for 13 years, said, "The union is the same shit. All these years they never come to us. ... All the owner's kids drive BMWs. And he won't pay us sick pay. ... They're treating us like animals. It's unbelievable."
Not all employees directed their anger at the store's owner. Manuel Brivas, who worked in the butchery department for 18 years, said, "I feel sad, we lose our jobs. ... I love the butchery department. I was like my own boss and that way I never had a problem."
The store's customers mourned the loss of one of the neighborhood's few 24 hour establishments. Sandra Durang, Law '73 and Westside shopper for close to 30 years, said, "I'm just heartbroken. I couldn't bring myself in here for a few days even though I knew the sale was on; it is just so sad." Durang said she would probably patronize Fairway or D'Ag Market as a result of Westside's closing.
Rachel Feinmark, CC '05, said of the store's closing, "I think it's going to be a big problem; it's one of the biggest stores around here." She said a friend called her almost in tears to tell her about the store's sale. Feinmark also said she would probably start shopping at Apple Tree Market since it is close to the East Campus residence hall where she lives.