A DELICATE MATTER

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Bob Martucci becomes emotional when he talks about the lack of health coverage for his family. He was fired from Acme for taking a pair of prescription glasses off the rack to wear for the day. ( Michael S. Wirtz / Staff Photographer )

It was a side of Bob Martucci that his wife, Kim, had never seen in all their years of marriage. A towering man reduced to tears.

"He's not pulling it together," Kim Martucci said of her husband, a 34-year Acme Markets Inc. veteran. He had been fired from his South Jersey produce-manager job after taking a pair of $9 reading glasses off a rack at the market and using them to beat an inventory deadline the day before President Obama's inauguration.

"It's concerning me," Kim Martucci said, her voice dissolving into tears. "He's just not the same person."

And yet, in the midst of this despair a few weeks back, Bob and Kim Martucci let a reporter, who arrived at their Runnemede home unannounced, walk through the front door, sit at their dining room table, and read an e-mail that had arrived at The Inquirer from a longtime customer.

"I saw your story about Acme chief Judith Spires in today's paper," the letter began, referencing an article in the business section about the company's president, a onetime Acme cashier, who had gotten her start as a teenager at the same store where Bob Martucci had worked. "I'm sure she is a very nice person."

Acme fired Martucci for violating its employee purchase policy - a move the company has declined to discuss. The delicate matter, which is headed for arbitration, hit this customer particularly hard, as illustrated in his deeply felt e-mail.

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The customer had shopped the Westmont Acme for 15 years, hitting the produce aisle every Sunday like clockwork. He had strapped his daughters into the shopping cart when they were toddlers, and carted them along when they were old enough to fetch boxes of Cheerios themselves.

"Over that time, I have developed friendships with many of the store employees," the man wrote. "They know my kids' names and ask about them when I shop alone."

The man had sampled the Wegmans in Cherry Hill and a nearby Super Fresh. But he always came back to the Acme on Cuthbert Road, he said, not because of the prices, but because of the people.

"With all that in mind, I was dismayed to recently find that one of these friends, a manager of the produce department, was fired recently. . . . He took a pair [of glasses] from the rack, removed the price tag, and used them to read inventory paperwork he was working on in the back office.

"It was wrong. It was dumb. But, particularly in this economic environment, should it cost him his job? He has young children. He has 30 years with the company. Working produce is the only job he ever had."

Bob Martucci's face turned red with grief as the letter went on, his eyes fixed on the table as he listened.

"We are in the middle of the worst economic recession of our lifetimes. We need people working. This is just wrong. I learned all this yesterday during my regular shopping trip there," the man continued.

"I've never written to a reporter before. I'm just upset and disappointed in this otherwise iconic institution in the lives of my family and community."

Martucci, a lean and tall man, began crying, his head sinking into square, slumped shoulders. He had not been told the letter-writer's name, but he turned to his wife and eked out a whisper:

"That sounds like Bob."

Bob was right. It was Bob Aristarco. A Haddon Township family man. An unexpected friend.

With those words, Martucci's dark journey from normalcy to despair struck a powerful, healing pause: The economy may be tossing people into treacherous waters, and iPhone idolatry may be reducing human relationships to tweets and text messages. But there are still people out there like Bob the Customer and Bob the Produce Guy, and they are looking out for each other.

The tale of Bob and Bob began 15 years ago, when Aristarco first set foot in that grocery store. Not chatty by nature, Aristarco was drawn out by Martucci and the affable Westmont gang. The store came to feel like a vestige of village life.

But when Bob no longer bumped into Bob stacking apples every Sunday, the fleeting chit-chat between customer and grocery man became something else - two men tossing each other the gift of caring in troubled times. Two men realizing that life is as much about the people you meet as it is the purse strings that pay the bills.

Martucci's ticket to the unemployment line was cut the second he clipped the tag off a pair of reading glasses and headed to the produce supply room to pore over inventory sheets.

It was Monday, Jan. 19. Inventory results had to be tallied by day's end. Martucci had forgotten his glasses at home. He rummaged through an employee stash kept inside a customer-service desk drawer, he said, but none was the right strength. So he headed for the display rack. He took off the tag, he said, because it obstructed the lenses.

The eyeglasses never left the store, according to union officials, who are challenging his dismissal before an arbitrator. Martucci had had an unblemished personnel file up to that point, they said.

Martucci finished the day and went home. He had Tuesday and Wednesday off - a produce man's weekend. When he returned Thursday, he was confronted by store security. A camera had captured him in plain sight, snipping the tag and tossing it into the garbage.

He was sent home. Within a week, after a hearing with his union and company officials, he was terminated. It was a violation of Acme's employee-purchase policy.

Contacted by telephone Thursday, Acme President Judith A. Spires was read Aristarco's letter. She said she wanted to hear from the customer and asked that her telephone number be passed along to him. She declined to immediately discuss the case, promising a reply by the next day.

On Friday morning and on her behalf, the company provided a written statement saying that corporate policy and confidentiality precluded Spires from discussing the matter.

"ACME Markets has a long-standing tradition of building positive relationships with its associates, customers and the community-at-large," the statement said. "While we cannot comment about the specifics of an individual associate due to confidentiality reasons, we can say that it is our policy to diligently investigate serious matters, weigh all factors under consideration, and act accordingly."

To the company, Martucci's dismissal was part of an effort to consistently enforce its policies for all employees, Acme told officials at United Food and Commercial Workers Local 1360, which represents 3,000 Acme workers in South Jersey, whose four-year contracts are set to expire next month.

The company told the union it had recently fired a manager who had removed an ice scraper and cleaned off his car with it before returning the item to the store, said union president Sam Ferraino.

The union seldom challenges such dismissals, Ferraino said. But Martucci's is going to arbitration because the union believes it is not a cut-and-dried case.

"Although Mr. Martucci removed the tag from the glasses, under the agreement between Acme Markets and the vendor, the glasses would have been replaced by the vendor or simply retagged for sale," the union's secretary-treasurer, Peg Michalowski, said in a letter Martucci has used in navigating the public-welfare system and in dealing with his mortgage company.

"The company suffered no loss as a result of Mr. Martucci's actions, and we strongly believe that a written warning would have been appropriate," Michalowski wrote. "It did not appear to us that the company even considered the fact that Mr. Martucci had a spotless record for 35 years."

Unlike the manager who was fired for removing an ice scraper, she wrote, Martucci did not remove the glasses from the property.

Retail chains, in particular, are keen to enforce such policies to combat what would otherwise be a damaging problem in the absence of safeguards: employee theft.

"For a retail chain, clearly having that kind of purchase policy is absolutely within reason," said Silvana Battaglia, vice president of human resources at Day & Zimmermann Group Inc. and a veteran human resources manager for large companies.

"You can imagine people would get hungry at break time and snack time, picking up chips off the shelves," Battaglia said. "At the end of the day, policies are meant to protect the company and employees of the company, because you have a clear understanding of the rules by which your performance is being assessed and your employment is being assessed."

Still, Battaglia was surprised to hear the circumstances surrounding this case. Her reaction: "Wow."

"If an employee took glasses off the shelf to use as part of their work - they never left the store - it sounds like the intent of that employee was to have them as equipment for work that anybody would have access to use," she said.

"At the end of the day," she said, "policies are left for interpretation because you're not always going to have every single process or detail of a policy laid out, and people will interpret them differently. You have to really understand intent."

Martucci's wife, Kim, has wondered whether the firing had anything to do with the fact that her husband was the union's shop steward. It seemed incomprehensible, she said, that he was let go without so much as a warning.

"It was a mistake that he did it," she said. "It was a stupid thing that he did it. He didn't think. He had one focus: To get his job done on time."

The union also believes the case is nuanced.

"We don't feel the punishment fits the crime," Ferraino said, echoing the phrase Aristarco used in his e-mail.

"That's the whole issue in this case," Ferraino said. "When you're doing things, sometimes you just don't think. And is that a reason to lose your job? Because you just made a mistake?"

It should come as no surprise that a customer could develop a strong bond with an employee at an Acme supermarket. Like its customers, Acme employees have a staying power unusual in today's retail marketplace.

Before being fired two months ago, 51-year-old Bob Martucci had worked for Acme since he was a teenager, at a Pennsauken store.

His late father, Bob Sr., had worked at an Acme bakery in Philadelphia his whole life.

"He started there right out of school and retired out of Acme," Martucci said. "He had spent over 35 years with the company. Between the two of us, we have about 70 years vested with the company."

Even Spires, the company's president, got her start as a cashier at the Westmont Acme more than three decades ago and recently recalled how her own father drove an Acme truck for a living.

In a recent interview, Spires, who leads the local division for the Minnesota-based parent company, Supervalu Inc., said this was one of the big reasons Acme, a local brand as familiar as the Phillie Phanatic, was different from its competitors and trusted by shoppers.

"Service is critical to a customer's needs today," Spires said. "We have long-term, knowledgeable people that our consumers know in their neighborhoods."

Over in Woodbury, where Ferraino, the Acme union president, lives, his 78-year-old neighbor had the same affection for the local Acme. When the woman died about a week ago, "the family drove her casket by the store because she was always at the store," Ferraino said. "It was a big thing."

And a year ago, when that woman threw a 40th birthday party for her daughter with Down syndrome, the party was full of employees from the Acme, said Ferraino, who was also there, but as an invited neighbor.

Memories of such collegiality, more than anything else, are what moved Martucci to tears, seated at his dinner table, after hearing the letter from Aristarco.

Yes, the family was about to go into foreclosure. Yes, they had recently endured what they called the profoundly "humbling" experience of applying for food stamps at the county assistance office.

"I walked into the room, and there's 100 chairs and 100 people in them," Martucci recalled. "I'm standing there saying, 'How did I get here? Why am I here?' "

And in a few days' time, Martucci would find himself walking into his doctor's office uninsured and with a printout of $10 antibiotics from Wal-Mart, asking his physician to pick something off that list for an infection brought on by a cracked tooth.

But that night at his table, it was thoughts of Acme customers and coworkers that brought tears to the eyes of this Babe Ruth youth-league coach and father of two.

He talked about people like Aristarco, like the longtime produce workmate affectionately dubbed "The Mayor of Westmont," and the happy-go-lucky old Westmont produce manager named Earl (who could forget his lovable toupee?), the now-deceased bundle of energy who years ago had taught Martucci the ropes.

And he talked about the older folks whose frequent trips, often without shopping lists, betrayed a loneliness beneath otherwise friendly chatter.

"I can't tell you how many seniors come in and just want to talk," Martucci said, crying at the thought of it.

The Aristarco family experienced the full joy of such warmth, starting when their girls were tots.

"My kids used to give the people who worked there Christmas presents," said Mary Louise Aristarco, during an interview this week at the family's home.

The girls, Terri, 16, and Gina, 13, sat on the sofa with wide smiles, eager to chime in.

"Donald, Larry, Butch, Bob," Terri said, ticking off names of the old-timers she knows.

Aristarco, who joined the family on the sofa Wednesday afternoon after a day of work as a health-care marketing manager, listened somberly to details about Martucci's life.

His house is in foreclosure because, owing to the termination, he was ineligible to receive unemployment the first six weeks, under state rules. That is being appealed.

Fortunately, there are no car payments; the family gets around in a 1997 Dodge minivan and a 1995 Toyota Camry.

The clan is living off a $1,600 unemployment check and about $200 a month in food stamps. Kim Martucci lost her job in September after undergoing surgery. She has been taking computer classes to improve her chances of landing a better job. She graduates soon.

Their 13-year-old son and 15-year-old daughter are doing well.

What, Aristarco wanted to know, was his friend's reaction when he heard about the letter?

"He cried."

Stunned into silence, Aristarco struggled to keep from breaking down.

"For 15 years, he's asked about the girls, I ask about his kids, we talk about the kids' sports," Aristarco said. "He's invested in the community like I am. And what happened to him was just wrong."

The case is many months away from coming before an arbitrator. Until then, one fact is beyond dispute.

"Bob the Customer lost a friend," said Ferraino, the union president. "And Bob the Produce Manager lost a job - and probably a friend as well."


Contact staff writer Maria Panaritis at 215-854-2431 or mpanaritis@phillynews.com.