by Nanette Massey
East Buffalo residents met at the Merriweather Library last Wednesday for a forum to voice concerns about the nearby Jefferson Avenue Tops supermarket. The forum was arranged and moderated by retired legislator Betty Jean Grant.
David Christopher, the Manager of the Jefferson Avenue location, started, thanking the community for the opportunity to have such dialogue. Christopher has been with Tops for 18 years, and this store’s manager for just over a month. “Customer service, that’s what I’m all about,” he said. His store has added more staff, is still hiring, and has bought 40 new carts, he pointed out. In response to complaints about the comparative quality of its produce, Christopher assured the stock being delivered to Jefferson comes from the same Lancaster warehouse that services all other Tops stores.
The floor was opened. Masten District Councilman Ulysees Wingo Sr. began with “if I could just talk to y’all as family for a minute, we need to treat ourselves better among ourselves. If we don’t respect what we have, nobody else will,” encouraging patience with employees as well as employee courtesy towards the customer base. Much of the commentary focused on the staff’s youth, and an acknowledgment that employees are sourced from a local population without a lot of experience shopping themselves in places where service is high end.
A former Tops security employee said “let’s face it, the hiring pool is kinda’ rough. We as a community need to help ourselves by talking to our young people.” The theme was holding young people accountable and continuing to stress that a supermarket clerk job is valuable training ground for future employment. One participant surmised “we could possibly have the next mayor of Buffalo working at this store”, adding that it is worth it for Tops management and local customers to put their faith and effort in the young workers.
Others cautioned against turning the meeting into a session where the Black community simply blames itself. A former manager of Round-The-Clock-Mart placed the responsibility on Tops to train their employees up to the Tops brand standard, despite what background they may come from. Ellicott District Councilman Darius Pridgen woke up the crowd by offering to allocate $5,000 for customer service training directed towards developing area raw talent into potentially excellent candidates for new openings.
In a February 9 video posted to his Facebook page, Pridgen acknowledged the Jefferson store currently operates at a profit loss but still chooses to remain, and that at the end of the day “an employer’s job is not to train culture.” He believes the community needs the store and should also do its part to provide good talent if it desires the store to keep these jobs in the neighborhood. Regional V.P. Mike Patti closed the meeting thanking the audience for honesty and respect, affirmed Tops’ commitment to the neighborhood, and asked all to have patience with the store’s manager while changes are being implemented.
Other Tops local executives who were in attendance included Media Relations Manager Kathy Romanowski,, Director of Customer Experience Cheryl Colbert, Director of Edible Groceries Keith McFayden, and Buffalo Central District Manager Mike Dudziak.
A follow up forum is scheduled at the same location (Merriweather Library Corner Utica and Jefferson) for March 21, 5:30 p.m., after information from this meeting has been compiled and assessed.