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A food fight is escalating in Victoria and Minnetonka, as former grocery employees assert they are owed $225,000 in unpaid vacation pay and pension benefits.

The United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) is a partner in the fight that has spilled onto Hwy. 5 and into the streets with weekly picketing.

The dispute, which has been going on for weeks, centers on the defunct Fresh Seasons Market. Its two grocery stores closed in May 2014 due to money woes. But the stores reopened this spring, with new owners and new names — Victoria’s Market in May in Victoria and Glen Lake’s Market in June in Minnetonka. One of the new owners is the former owner’s son.

Besides the union-sponsored picketing of the stores, there have been counter protests, lawsuits and neighborhoods plastered with fliers decrying both versions of the squabble.

Managers at both stores — which are now nonunion — say that with the picketing, sales are soft.

That’s the goal, said UFCW members who contend that real estate developer and Fresh Seasons’ founder Tom Wartman stiffed 120 former employees of earned pay and benefits while profiting from the two newly reopened grocery stores.

Wartman still owns the buildings where the stores are located; his son, Tommy, is a co-owner of the new stores. To UFCW Local 653, and its president, Matt Utecht, the relationship shows Wartman is still profiting from the stores.

“When both stores reopened, it was Tom who opened them every day. It was Tom who closed them every night. It was Tom who dealt with the food vendors, the suppliers, the construction workers. He didn’t act like a landlord. He acted like an owner,” Utecht said. “Wartman should prioritize and pay his former employees the money they earned before working to benefit himself by reopening the stores.”

The union sent that message in a letter to 50,000 local residents and rallied at both stores all through the summer.

Tom Wartman, who co-founded Fresh Seasons in 2005, fired back in letters to thousands of local residents that the union “is wrong” and its allegations are “false.” The 64-year-old said he lost the $4 million he invested in Fresh Seasons.

“Fresh Seasons Markets didn’t have enough money to remain open, and the banks foreclosed,” he said in the letter. “I am truly sorry the stores failed.”

He added that he paid $18 million in wages and benefits over Fresh Seasons’ nine years in business.

Reiterating that he did not have an ownership interest in the new stores, he said in the letter that the union wants to put the new markets out of business.

“The effort is unfortunately proving successful by keeping you [residents] away,” he wrote. “Please don’t let the UFCW bully these stores out of business on the basis of disputed allegations made by them against me and my companies.”

Neither Wartman nor his son returned phone calls for further comment.

The battle has landed in court. The union and pensioners sued Fresh Seasons. In February, one Minnesota district judge ruled that Fresh Seasons owes workers $75,000 in pension benefits. A second lawsuit, which alleges $150,000 in owed vacation pay, has since been sealed and is making its way through the courts.

Until the case settles, Utecht is sending union members daily to the reopened stores to picket.

Mary Page, a manager for Fresh Seasons in Glen Lake for nine years, has handed out scores of fliers to area residents. She said Wartman owes her $18,000 in vacation pay and health insurance benefits. Before the original stores closed, she went in for foot surgery only to learn that Wartman had stopped providing employees health insurance. “He didn’t tell anybody,” she said.

An emergency home equity loan covered her $2,700 bill. The insurance cancellation, she said, was a big surprise and came on top of months of wage cuts at both stores.

Former meat manager Dan Kirchmann learned he had no insurance when his wife was four months pregnant. He scrambled to find another job and in the interim paid $150 a week to get coverage through his union. “We were nervous,” said Kirchmann, who has hit the picket line more than 14 times. He said he is owed $2,000 in back wages.

“I don’t have anything against Tom or his businesses. I’d just like him to do what he’s supposed to,” Kirchmann said. “If he paid up, we’d leave him and those stores alone. I feel bad for the employees who work there.”

The union points to Wartman’s many investments in asking for the back pay for members.

Tax records show Wartman owns a $2.6 million house in Shorewood, a nine-bedroom home worth $1.36 million in Hawaii and a $323,000 lake home in Grand Marais, Minn. Wartman’s LinkedIn page says he owns the Gold Nugget Tavern and Grille across the street from Glen Lake’s Market.

Will Jedlicka, manager of Victoria’s Market, just wants to run his store and survive the ordeal. “Sales are not where we expected them to be.”

Some residents recently took to the Internet and the streets to support the new grocery stores. They came with “Shop Victoria” picket signs, stood on the corner opposite the union folks and asked drivers on Hwy. 5 to honk to show their support for local businesses.

“The people I hear from are frustrated,” said Victoria City Manager Laurie Hokkanen. “I get residents who call and say, ‘It’s not really fair that Victoria is getting a bad reputation [instead of] its reputation as a nice quaint little place. Now there is protesting and arguments. So residents are saying, ‘What can we do?’ ”

Members of a group calling itself Shop Glen Lake similarly showed up in Minnetonka. “It’s a source of great pride that the neighborhood came to rally for the store,” said Alan Commins, who manages Glen Lake’s Market. The union is picketing “for the wrong reasons. They are not giving any of our markets a chance to run our business. We are a new business.”

Utecht, from the union, said all picketing will stop “the moment” Wartman pays former workers what they say they are due.

Dee DePass • 612-673-7725