“This store is weird,” says a longtime FroGro worker, rearranging a shelf full of Pampers. It gets weirder at four in the morning.

The Fresh Grocer of Walnut Street, a nondescript grocery store beneath an unremarkable parking garage, has become a place Penn students love to hate. When the University announced in April 2017 that the Fresh Grocer would be replaced with ACME, another chain grocery store, student reactions were mixed: FroGro is reliable and convenient, but cramped and often disorganized. Penn and the Fresh Grocer have been engaged in litigation to decide the store’s fate since December 2016 and will continue to be until at least June 2018;  employees find themselves in the dark about the futures of their jobs. But they have plenty to say about the chaos that is FroGro on a Saturday night. 

At 7:00 p.m., in the dimly–lit balcony overlooking the aisles of Fresh Grocer, a woman sleeps next to her suitcase between the men’s and women’s bathrooms. A toothless octogenarian reads the comics while snacking on Pedialyte and ToastChee. Other West Philadelphians, most over the age of 60, recline in the orange plastic chairs and watch the traffic on 40th and Walnut rush by. The regulars seem to vaguely know each other; there are greetings and nods as people slowly come and go. 

Directly below them, the beer garden is abuzz with Penn students looking for their Saturday night essentials. Flannel–clad guys and crop–topped girls arrive in pairs or squads, waiting in a line that, by now, already snakes out of the liquor section and past the fruit display. A girlfriend entreats her boyfriend for a particular type of red wine. He’s not sure about it, so she starts kissing his neck in the aisle to convince him. It works. 

Down here, it’s 90% Penn, 10% everyone else. There are regulars, too: the cashier knows some customers by name. “Oh hey girl! Don’t you usually come earlier?” 

A few hours later, Paul, the only cook at the hot foods counter, convinces a passerby to try some of his macaroni and cheese. He’s worked at the Fresh Grocer for a total of eight years, but says he doesn’t usually understand what’s going on with the store’s management. He had no idea about Penn’s plans to replace the Fresh Grocer with ACME, though this has been a source of concern among Penn students since it was announced in 2016. If a new store replaced the Fresh Grocer, though, “it’s up to them to keep me. I imagine they’d come in and hire new people.” 

Jamir, behind the self–checkout, is a jack of all trades. “They have me working as cashier but also self–checkout, carts and baskets, maintenance—and they still payin’ me the same.” A potbellied man in a purple tie comes out and stands in the doorway of the store office and Jamir gets quiet fast. “Look, that’s my manager right behind me. He gon’ come over and say something if I’m talking to you. I don’t want to be ignorant to you, but could you come back another time?” 

A young man wearing a light blue suit jacket and a Wharton visor flirts with the woman behind the customer service desk. “Hey, where you from? I like your name, by the way.” He asks for a pack of Marlboros, “the last pack up there!” He pays, and he and his friend, also wearing a blazer, swagger toward the door. “Hey!” She yells after them. “Forgot your cigarettes.” 

A little before 10:00 p.m., the customer service desk has quieted down, and Aaron, the overnight supervisor, has time to tell some stories. “People try to steal from this store all the time. But it’s always college students, stealin’ sushi. Don’t they got food?” But stolen sushi isn’t Aaron’s main concern. “There’s seven bars in the area, we get a lot of drunk people comin’ to the grocery store.” 

Certain times of year are worse than others. “Halloween’s crazy around here. Last year we got Scooby–Doo come in here and try to steal booze. Every year at St. Patty’s Day we got a guy dressed as a leprechaun tryin’ to buy Lucky Charms with gold coins.” 

As for the job: “As far as I know [Penn and the Fresh Grocer are] still fighting but they didn’t tell us nothing.” He hopes he would be transferred to another Fresh Grocer store, but he can’t be sure what the protocol would be in case of a closure. “All we heard was rumors.” 

Back upstairs on the balcony, someone talks loudly on the phone about the recent mysterious death of his cousin, who was only thirty–seven, and about why America should be careful of Kim Jong-un.

A middle–aged man in a dark blue hoodie writes in a notebook with great concentration, studying a tome called BEST RESUMES for 100,000 Jobs. 

This balcony is one of the few places on or near Penn’s campus that allows the public to have a seat and relax indoors. As such, it has become a respite from the freezing temperatures outside for people experiencing homelessness. There are strict parameters on the space: it’s closed from midnight to 7 a.m., no outside food or beverages are allowed, and no alcohol is permitted. A notice has been posted limiting guests’ stay to an hour after each meal purchase, but Fresh Grocer employees normally let people stay as long as they’re not making any trouble.

Photo: Saranya Sampath

In the back corner of the seating area, another man in worn, baggy clothing closes his eyes and talks to God, or to no one in particular:

“We all come from different backgrounds, from Europe, Asia, Korea … We are all kings. We are all royalty. Jesus—because of Him, we are all beautiful.” 

Before 11:00 p.m., two Penn Police cars, sirens blaring, turn the FroGro corner and stop in front of the store. Everyone on the balcony turned to look out the window.

“Saturday night,” someone chuckles. 

“Wait, are they harassing this guy?”

Down on the sidewalk, two neon–clad security guards are barking sentences at the man who had just been studying the BEST RESUMES book on the balcony, now sitting hunched up on a newspaper box. 

An ambulance comes to the corner. The security guards guide the RESUME man into the vehicle, though he doesn’t seem to be in any pain or distress, and it speeds away. None of the onlookers on the balcony know exactly why this happened. 

“He knows it’s gonna rain,” one guesses, laughing. “He got a ride.” 

Before the beer garden closes at 11:30 p.m., the last few customers hurry to buy their alcohol.  A girl in Penn gear urges her friend to make his selection. “We literally have, like, minutes.” A few aisles over, six stoned Penn students gaze in awe at organic fruit. 

An apron–clad employee comes up the stairs, making sure everyone is awake and ready to leave when the balcony closes at midnight.

“Long time, no see!” He says to the man in the corner, who has stopped talking to himself and is nodding off in the chair. The employee notices the silver can in a plastic bag on the floor and admonishes him. 

The man just grumbles, but opens his eyes. The employee begins an intervention. 

“I try to be nice to you, but you can’t come in here with this. You’re killing yourself more! Look at you.” He counts the drinks in the man’s bag. “One, two, three—damn, when people drinking, they don’t know what they doing. What if he go hit one of our students! And then we get sued!”

They both laugh. This seems a familiar exchange. 

“I respect you and I love you. But please do not be bringing the beer up here.” 

At a minute before midnight, the woman with the suitcase is still sleeping. “‘Scuse me everybody, this area gonna be closing in five minutes,” announces a second employee, gently shaking an elderly man awake. Everyone is reluctant to go; if allowed, most would stay the night. Without a word, the suitcase woman wraps a scarf around her face, rides the elevator down, and disappears into the night. 

At 2:00 a.m., a woman dressed as a sexy Slytherin schoolgirl wanders aimlessly around the frozen foods aisle clutching her magic wand and a bag of baby broccoli florets. Another girl in a hippie beaded headband is contemplating the Eczema Body Scrub lined up on a shelf vaguely labeled “Nutrition.” When the automatic doors slide shut behind them, the place is a ghost town. Cheery 1960s soul jams blare over the loudspeaker. Aisle seven is in total disarray—Tidy Cats and Friskies cans are strewn on the floor, deserted. There is no spinach left. Five boxes of sushi live to see another day. 

“I seen a lot of sexual intercourse in this store,” says Everett, an overnight grocery stocker, around four in the morning. “And mostly it’s from students. Yep, in a bathroom. But hey, it’s okay. Stuff happens.” 

Everett started working nights five years ago to take care of his new daughter during the daytime. Despite all the nonsense he’s seen in his day, he needs his job and hopes the Fresh Grocer stays around so he can keep it. “We have no clue what’s going on. And if anybody knows, it’s the managers. The employees who actually do the job—we don’t know nothin’. It would be nice to know, so we can start looking for another job or not. Wouldn’t want someone to show up here one day and there’s no job for ‘em.” 

Ed Datz, the Executive Director of Penn’s Facilities and Real Estate Services, would only reveal in an emailed statement that “Penn is continuing with ongoing legal proceedings for the grocery store transition, and is refraining from any public comment while the litigation initiated by Fresh Grocer proceeds to trial later this year.” 

A spokesperson for Wakefern Food Corporation, which owns the Fresh Grocer, was similarly tight–lipped, saying only that “We continue to operate at this location and look forward to serving Penn’s faculty, staff, students and neighbors for years to come.” 

While it’s common practice for parties to hold information from the public during litigation, this does not give Fresh Grocer license to leave its 172 employees in the dark about their jobs. According to Heidi Wunder, a spokesperson for FRES, the University asked ACME to confirm a contract on January 30, and is currently awaiting response. None of the Fresh Grocer employees interviewed were aware that Penn and ACME were even considering a partnership. 

All of what Everett has heard about the conflict between the store and the University has been hearsay. “Last thing I heard was that the store was staying open, but right after that someone said it was closing in March, then in June. From what I’m hearing, if they do shut it down we’re basically on our own. I don’t think that’s right.” 

A few minutes after 5:00 a.m., an announcement rings through the tinny Fresh Grocer loudspeakers: Attention shoppers: all beer and wine sales ended at 11:30.

Everett chuckles. “Means someone tried to buy beer.” 

Seemingly done worrying about job security for the night, Everett launches back into “the scoop.” 

“There’s some things that could change about this job. One, pay; Two, communication between managers and employees; Three, the way some employees are treated—a lot of back–bitin’ goin’ on in here, they got favoritism goin’ on. You got to be willing to get somebody in trouble to move up.” 

Photo: Autumn Powell

He stops to rearrange some bags of brown sugar.

“Overnight gets treated the worst, I’d say. Stuff could get stolen in the day, they’d blame overnight.” He laughs. “Can’t get in trouble for telling the truth! Well, I can, but I don’t care.” 

Aaron stops by to report that another student just tried to steal some sushi. 

“It’s rare to see a college kid get arrested in here and actually go to the station. When a student gets caught stealin’, the Penn Police come, maybe call the regular cops, then they talk to ‘em and let ‘em go. This is not the case with regular customers. If they steal, they’re arrested, they take a statement—all the things that are supposed to happen when you’re caught stealin’.” 

“For the most part the students aren’t bad at all,” Everett reflects, “except when they drunk. It’s just the rich ones, the spoily ones, who cause the trouble.” 

As the sun comes up, Quaeir, an overnight grocery clerk, has now shelved cans all night on four hours of sleep. He is a full–time student by day, studying criminal justice at the Community College of Philadelphia, and works as an overnight grocery clerk at night. “My sleeping schedule is bad,” he admits. “Only time I sleep is on the weekend.” Like Aaron, Everett, and Paul, Quaeir worries about the future of his employment. “They say it’s gonna close, it’s not gonna close, they don’t really talk about it. I need to know, to look for a job.” 

By 7:00 a.m., early morning shoppers trickle in from the almost–dawn outside. Others, suitcases and bags and books in tow, make their way upstairs for a morning’s rest on the balcony.