February 26, 2008

Treasure Island pushes back opening

Treasure Island, the Chicago-based grocer slated to fill the spot recently vacated by the 55th Street Co-op Market, will not be opening in February as was their original goal.

Lee Zarras, vice president of operations at Treasure Island, said that he did not know when the store would open its doors, and that at the earliest, it would be the second or third week of March. According to co-owner Maria Kamberos, they are doing an extensive cleanup to prepare for their second city licensing inspection at the end of this week, so that the store can begin stocking its shelves.

Renovations of every department will continue after the store opens. Kamberos said that when the store does open, shoppers can expect big sales, lots of samples, and promotions.

Some community members fear, however, that the specialty-style grocery store, which will feature international, organic, and all-natural foods, will bring high prices. But Kamberos said that their prices will be “very competitive,” and Susan Campbell, associate vice president of the Office of Community and Government Affairs at the University, described the prices as “similar” to the Co-op’s.

Both the University and Treasure Island emphasize that the store caters to community and consumer needs. Kamberos said that they will offer a community room which has already been solicited by 50 organizations, will offer cooking classes, and will even try to stock items by customer request.

Some former Co-op employees have formed “In it Together,” an organization trying to support workers in their job search. However, according to its founding member, Jay Mulberry, the organization has struggled because of “inexperience in the area of employment” and constraints on time and resources.

According to Kamberos, Treasure Island welcomed all former Co-op employees to interview and had the staff of every department available from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. for four days to conduct interviews. Although several former employees say that more than 100 interviewed, Kamberos estimates that between 85 and 90 came in.

At the last Co-op board meeting, President James Pouyermiou said that 30 had been given jobs at Treasure Island. Kamberos declined to confirm the number, saying that although the four-day intensive interview had concluded, Co-op employees are still being interviewed and hired, so the numbers have not yet been finalized.

The store’s decision not to hire one employee in particular, Ronald (Rahn) Harris, outraged the community group “Good Neighbors,” composed of 105 residents within walking distance of the 55th Street shopping court. Mulberry wrote to Kamberos on behalf of the group: “It is not controversial. Everyone is outraged and wants Rahn hired.”

The letter also articulated complaints that many employees who had interviewed had not been contacted. Kamberos said that the hiring decisions were final, that the store had made “every effort” to contact prospective employees, and that she welcomed anyone who had not heard back to contact her directly.

Treasure Island has also drawn local fire as a non-union store since its controversial decertification from the local 881 union. Amelia Tucker, president of the union to which the Co-op employees belonged, sent a letter to Kamberos two weeks ago requesting a meeting to talk about the possibility that Treasure Island recognize the union, but Kamberos has not replied.

But according to Campbell, Treasure Island has gone out of its way to accommodate former Co-Op employees.

“Treasure Island has hired former Co-op employees and started them at the current pay scale they were receiving at the Co-op, which is different from T.I.’s other new hires who start at lower pay scales for the same positions,” Campbell said. “This is a position Treasure Island decided on its own.”