Chico Natural Foods copes with increase in panhandling and shoplifting, as well as first armed robbery
In the late afternoon of June 7, a 33-year-old transient named Todd Anthony Wilkins was arrested at the Vagabond Inn after fleeing the Chico Natural Foods (CNF) cooperative on Main Street on foot after being observed by an off-duty employee stealing a bottle of beer. Wilkins was still in possession of the beer and the concealed knife he had brandished in the direction of the employee who confronted him before calling the Chico Police Department.
Wilkins’ beer burglary is the latest in a string of unsavory events that the natural-foods cooperative has had to deal with, such as an increase in shoplifting and aggressive panhandling, the theft of almost all of the store’s fleet of shopping carts in a matter of a few weeks, and people passing out on the front sidewalk. This writer—a member and regular shopper at Chico Natural Foods—has been confronted on several occasions of late by brazen panhandlers (some who lurk in the nearby Chevron gas-station parking lot before pouncing) and recently witnessed an apparently homeless man quickly load all of his belongings into a cart and run off as fast as he could down the street.
“I’ve been here 11 years, and this is the first armed robbery I’ve seen,” said CNF General Manager Liza Tedesco of the Wilkins incident. She acknowledged that “repetitive panhandling, people in their wheelchairs passed out in front, or people just passed out,” as well as “tons of shoplifting,” are ongoing problems.
“I think it always increases in the summer when the weather is good,” offered Janae Lloyd, CNF’s membership and marketing manager, of panhandling and shoplifting at the store. She added that the popular health-food co-op is “in a great location, in a position between the Jesus Center and the [downtown] plaza and downtown, between the public spaces where [potential problem persons] can hang out for a long time.”
One observer commented that this particular part of Main Street was known as “the homeless highway.”
“We’re a traceable connection between some of the Jesus Center and Torres Shelter services, and the plaza,” Tedesco said, adding that she believes the struggling economy is a contributing factor to the increased number of people panhandling and such.
The problems at CNF are shared by other members of the Downtown Chico Business Association (DCBA), Tedesco pointed out. “On March 6, we had a DCBA membership meeting, and the topic was business trespassing,” she said. “A lot of the downtown businesses experience significant impacts to their businesses through challenging behaviors.”
The agenda from that meeting indicates a focus on “gather[ing] feedback from downtown business owners on unwanted behaviors and level of urgency for resolution” as well as identifying “potential strategies and next steps the DCBA, [the] city of Chico and service providers can explore to address identified concerns.”
Tedesco and Lloyd noted, though, that some downtown businesses—such as higher-end boutiques and specialty shops—have less continuous foot traffic than does Chico Natty, as the store is affectionately known. “At our store, [the unwanted behaviors are] more visible because we’re a more active business,” Lloyd said. “We’re a hub. We have people coming in and out of our doors all day long every day from 7:30 a.m. to 10 p.m.”
Tedesco said she met approximately two months ago with City Manager Dave Burkland. “We spent some time talking about the negative impacts [of panhandlers, etc.] and the cost of the impacts,” she said. “We discussed the annual costs that the store incurs mitigating those challenging behaviors. We [at Chico Natural Foods] estimated it’s about $11,000 a year that we spend on the floor manager and the front-end manager and the staff [to deal with these behaviors].”
“And that’s labor—that’s not property,” Lloyd said. “Our floor managers work hard to keep track of the amount of time people spend sitting at the tables out front,” she added. CNF maintains a 20-minute time limit to discourage troublesome activities.
“We spend a significant amount of time [dealing with difficult behaviors] because we have a lot of compassion,” said Lloyd, “because with every incident we try to be respectful and kind and find solutions—rather than just say, ‘Get out of here’—by asking, ‘Is there someone we can call?’ [or] ‘Can we walk you to the Jesus Center?’”
“We listen to their stories,” Tedesco said. “I sat with one woman and her two dogs for about half an hour, listening to how she could not find services because of her dogs. … She was really struggling.”
“We also try to keep track through physical reports of every incident that we have. We have a binder where [employees] write down incidents that we have,” said Lloyd. The binder has been in use for the past three years.
“We needed a way to keep consolidated track of these issues so we can respond appropriately and fairly,” Tedesco said. “Using that, I can go out to an individual and say, ‘We’ve had this conversation three times—on this date, this date and this date. The first time I told you this was an issue; now it’s a problem.’
“We’ve spent almost $3,000 on purchasing shopping carts that are now gone,” she added. “We just spent close to a thousand dollars on new ones. It’s what I consider part of our operating expenses now.”
“I really wanted to provide more staff training and support [after the June 7 robbery],” said Tedesco. “We have used Tim Truby [former Chico P.D. community services officer who was reassigned to patrol due to budget cuts] on four separate occasions; he’s been our theft and robbery education resource. But when I contacted him to do an all-staff training in response to this [robbery]—for stress, for support—he said his services had been terminated.”
Lloyd and Tedesco are confident that the eight centrally monitored video cameras installed at CNF early this year are helping to keep the situation in check.
“It’s our priority to make this a comfortable space to enjoy the experience of shopping,” said Tedesco.
“Because we are an active hub, it’s occasionally dimmed by bad behavior,” Lloyd said. “We’ll continue to work for solutions. [DCBA Executive Director] Heather Keag is extremely responsive—she’s great. I think she will move the process forward for all the downtown businesses.”