For almost a decade, real estate developer Tom Wartman tried to make a go of the grocery business.
His Fresh Seasons Markets in Victoria and Minnetonka struggled, forcing Wartman to provide cash infusions totaling $4 million to keep the stores afloat. By 2014, Wartman claims he had no choice but to close the doors. More than 100 workers lost their jobs. The storefronts remained dormant for about a year.
That changed in May and June. Victoria’s Market and Glen Lake’s Market in Minnetonka opened with the financial backing from a new investor group, which includes Wartman's son, Tom Jr. But the elder Wartman still controls the real estate.
Therein lies the problem.
Wartman owes 120 former Fresh Season Market workers about $150,000 in earned vacation and holiday pay, according to United Food and Commercial Workers Union Local 653 president Matt Utecht. The union also charges the former owner underfunded the stores' pension and health benefit funds. For months, the former employees have picketed outside the new grocery stores.
"If I didn't believe Tom Wartman had the ability to pay that, I would not be out here," Utecht told KARE-11 last month.
Wartman could not be reached for comment. But in a letter published in the Eden Prairie News last month, he said the "Fresh Seasons Markets didn’t have enough money to remain open and the banks foreclosed." Wartman didn't address the back-owed money allegations.
In a July statement posted on the Glen Lake’s Market's website, general manager Alan Commins appears to concede that Wartman stiffed his former workers, writing, "Fresh Seasons Market closed its doors after paying all labor wages to its employees for time worked. The bank accounts were swept by the bank that held a 1st secured position on all assets. That did mean that some of Fresh Seasons Market’s past employees did not receive accrued vacation pay, benefits and a disputed pension amount with the UFCW 653 Union."
Commins tells City Pages the picketers are killing business.
"Based on the weekly and monthly sales figures from the previous store, I know we're not even close," he says. "I've been in the grocery business long enough to know a store doing this kind of business isn't going to last."
What happens if Glen Lake is forced to close and another 25 to 35 people lose their jobs? asks Commins.
"If another grocery store were to open after us, would [the picketers] protest that store too?" he says. "Nobody wins this way.... I would ask them to go through the proper channels, the courts."
They have. The conflict between Wartman and old labor has spawned two lawsuits, the contents of which have been sealed.
His former employees "will have their day in court," Wartman's letter in the EP News further read. "That’s how the dispute should be settled, not by picketing stores that weren’t involved."