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“You can’t pay for that with food stamps.” Customer alleges racist comments from Willy Street Co-op employee


A Madison woman said she was subjected to insensitive, unwelcoming and race-based comments by an employee at the Willy Street Co-op’s east side location on Williamson Street in Madison.

Dezarae House. Photo supplied.

Co-op management said they take the allegation seriously and will take immediate steps to remedy the situation.

In a Facebook post in the group “Dane County Neighbors Helping Neighbors” and in an interview with Madison365 Monday, Dezarae House, 28, said she went into the store Monday morning to pick up some breakfast on her way to her job.

She said she was dishing herself some food to go from the store’s hot breakfast bar when she heard an employee say, “Don’t make a habit of coming in here,” and “you can’t pay for that with food stamps.”

“I sort of just brushed her off and told her like, ‘Okay. I know that already. You don’t have to get rude or anything,'” House said. “And she basically said to me that the grocery store was for locals and people who lived in the neighborhood. And I told her, I’m like, ‘Girl, I live right in front of the grocery store on the next block. So what are you talking about?’ And then she was like, ‘Well, it’s for people who care about what they’re putting in their bodies.’ … It doesn’t matter. Even if I was coming in for donuts, it shouldn’t matter. She shouldn’t make me feel like I don’t belong, and that’s how she made me feel.”

House said “100%, yes” the comments were based on her race. “I’ll notice homeless people hanging around the area because I think they have The Beacon (day shelter) over there, and I don’t know … but she shouldn’t assume. I wasn’t in there asking people for money. I wasn’t in there trying to put stuff in my purse or anything. I’m there trying to get some food and get to work. That’s it.

House said she’s a regular customer but not a member of the co-op.

I won’t go there to full-on grocery shop because they are really expensive, but it’s convenient and more convenient than going to a Woodman’s because it’s right in my backyard,” she said.

Willy Street Co-op general manager Anya Firszt commented on House’s original Facebook post expressing regret and pledging to take steps to repair the situation.

House said she spoke with store manager Kristin Esselstrom, offering a description of the employee. In Facebook messages shared with Madison365, Esselstrom called the incident a “serious issue” and wrote, “I’m sure on the phone I came across as saying every canned response and that did not inspire confidence that anything would change. It honestly hurts my heart that this happened, but I need some time to figure out what my resources are to address what has been highlighted as a serious issue in this store.”

In an email to Madison365, Willy Street Co-op communications manager Brendon Smith wrote, “We are continuing to investigate in order to take action regarding this specific incident. We have scheduled immediate conversations with our Department Managers at Willy East to provide guidance regarding expectations for staff interactions with customers. We will also be expediting our already planned diversity, equity, and inclusion training for staff members, with a first session focused on the East frontline staff to occur within the next 60 days.”

In a written statement, Firszt said, “Racially insensitive and offensive comments are not tolerated. We are a diverse community, and Willy Street Co-op is committed to serving ALL of our community in the friendly, respectful manner we all expect and deserve. We won’t rest until we are successful in creating an environment where we all are included and respected. We are sorry, and we will do better.”

House said she doesn’t necessarily want the employee to lose her job.

“I’m not trying to get anybody fired because I don’t know if this lady has kids. I don’t know if she is homeless herself. I don’t know that, and I wouldn’t want anybody to come for my job,” she said. “If they fire her, that would be up to the company or the management, but that’s not the goal. But they need to know that they can’t judge a book by its cover. Anybody should be able to shop at that grocery store. I don’t care if it’s a grocery store in a neighborhood with people who may be a bit more stable financially, or I don’t care if the prices are a little higher. I don’t care about that stuff. Anybody should be able to go and shop there without feeling like, ‘Damn, I really don’t belong here.’”

She’s not sure yet if she’ll return to the store.

“I don’t want to go back, but I mean, it’s convenient. I don’t know,” she said. “And then I don’t even know if they want me to come back.”