Jim Kenyon: Store manager accuses Hanover Co-op of racial discrimination

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    After enduring inappropriate language from other employees and racist slurs and being spit on by a customer, Doren Hall, of Cornish, N.H., manager of the Lebanon Co-op, has filed a race discrimination complaint against the Hanover Consumer Cooperative Society. Hall said he formed a good bond with his team at the store after taking the position in 2017. "The reason I enjoy the work is I enjoy people," he said. "The team I work with now is probably the best team I've worked with in 36 years." (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Doren Hall lets his flock of black and white giants and New Hampshire and Rhode Island reds out of their coop in Cornish, N.H., after getting home from his job as manager of the Lebanon Co-op on Thursday, May 19, 2022. Hall grew up keeping chickens on a farm where his grandfather raised pigs in Suffolk, Va., and he sells eggs from the small flock to the Meriden Deli Mart. Hall has filed a race discrimination complaint against the Co-op stemming from its handling of incidents with customers in which he was called the “N” word, spit on, and alleged mishandling of his application for the Co-op's general manager position. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News photographs — James M. Patterson

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    Doren Hall, of Cornish, N.H., started working in grocery stores at age 15 and worked his way up to managing multiple stores for a Florida chain before he was recruited to be the manager of the Lebanon Co-op in 2017. Hall has filed a race discrimination complaint against the Hanover Consumer Cooperative Society after five years in the position, where he has been called a "token" by fellow employees, endured racist slurs from customers and was spit on by one without recourse from the Co-op, and alleges his application for general manager was mishandled. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News — James M. Patterson

Valley News Columnist
Published: 5/22/2022 1:07:11 AM
Modified: 5/22/2022 1:06:52 AM

When the Hanover Consumer Cooperative Society announced it was looking for a new chief executive, Doren Hall was eager to apply.

The opportunity to oversee the Co-op’s four grocery stores, two automotive service centers and a commercial kitchen was a dream job in his eyes.

With more than 30 years of experience in the grocery industry, including the last five years as manager of the Lebanon Co-op, Hall had good reason to think he’d be well-suited to lead the country’s second-largest grocery cooperative.

Hall, a 50-year-old Black man, also had the backing of Ed Fox, who held the top leadership position from 2016 to 2020.

The day after Hall had his first interview for the general manager’s job, he received a phone call from a member of the Co-op governing board’s search committee informing him that he was out of the running.

“I didn’t even make it to the final round,” Hall told me. “The Co-op claims to be about diversity, but it’s all a facade.”

Earlier this month, Hall filed a racial discrimination complaint against the Co-op with the New Hampshire Commission for Human Rights.

“I assert that my employer’s failure to promote me to the General Manager position was based on my race or color,” the complaint stated.

On Friday morning, Co-op spokesman Allan Reetz told me that neither he nor General Manager Amanda Charland, who took over three weeks ago, after the board voted her in, had seen the complaint.

Later in the day, Reetz relayed a statement from Charland.

“We seek to be equitable in all things done by our business,” Charland said. “We support the right of employees to question if our practices of fairness have been applied properly.”

The Human Rights Commission has assigned an investigator to Hall’s case. The complaint itself, known as a “charge of discrimination,” is not yet public record, but Hall shared it with me.

“I love the Co-op and what it’s supposed to stand for,” he said, “but I want this to be known so it doesn’t keep happening.”

The Co-op, which was formed nearly 90 years ago, is overseen by a 12-member elected board of directors that includes two employees. The general manager search committee was made up of four directors, including one employee, three Co-op members and the Co-op’s director of administrative operations.

Getting what amounted to little more than a cursory look during the search process was the “last straw,” Hall said. He’s been quiet long enough.

In an interview last week, Hall talked about the racism he’s encountered since taking the helm of the Lebanon Co-op, the largest store in the chain with more than 100 employees.

He’s been called the N-word by a customer who refused to wear a mask and a “Black Lives Matter flunky” by another shopper who didn’t appreciate hearing the city’s mask mandate was still in effect.

And that was just in the last six months.

Hall, who managed large grocery stores in five states before joining the Co-op, said dealing with customers who use racist language is nothing new. For instance, when he was the manager of a Price Chopper in Pennsylvania, a woman told him to take his “Black ass back to Africa.”

But there was a difference between how the Co-op’s upper management handles racist incidents than other places that he’s worked, Hall said.

After the incident in Pennsylvania, Price Chopper’s parent company enlisted a law firm to identify the woman and have her barred from the store.

“Employees need to feel they have the backing of the people they’re working for, but that doesn’t always happen at the Co-op,” Hall said.

Case in point: In May 2021, an older woman who came up to the meat counter at the Lebanon Co-op was not wearing a mask. An employee reminded her about the city’s mask mandate.

“This is such f---ing bull---,” she said, according to an email the employee sent to Hall.

The woman put on her mask, but shortly thereafter, Hall was alerted that she had pulled it down below her nose while still in store. Hall pointed out to the woman that masks were needed during the COVID-19 pandemic for the safety of customers and employees.

“Doren was trying to tell her if she did not wear her mask properly that she would have to leave the store,” a Co-op employee who witnessed the incident later recalled. “She proceeded to argue with him, then she took down her mask, spit in his face and walked out.”

An in-store video camera captured the encounter.

After identifying the woman — she was a regular shopper — Hall wanted her banned from the store. Working with Lebanon police, the Co-op sent her a “no trespass” letter.

But a few days later, after an exchange of emails with the woman’s husband, Co-op General Manager Paul Guidone lifted the ban.

“It made no sense,” Hall said. (He later heard the customer was a friend of a board member but couldn’t confirm it.)

The woman continued to shop at the Lebanon Co-op until another incident — not involving Hall — occurred in January.

While in a checkout line, the woman “verbally abused” a cashier, repeatedly used the “F” word and called the cashier “slow, stupid and incompetent,” according to a letter that Guidone sent Lebanon police. (After I asked for information about the incident, Lebanon Chief Phil Roberts provided the letter last week.)

Guidone also informed Lebanon police that the woman was no longer permitted on any of the Co-op’s properties in Lebanon, Hanover, Hartford and Norwich.

Hall was glad his employer finally took strong action, but he remained puzzled.

“It was OK for her to spit in my face, but not OK for her to curse at someone else,” he said.

Hall has also provided the state Human Rights Commission with information about racist comments made by workers.

“I have been referred to as a ‘token’ by other employees … because I was only one out of two African-American employees in the company in a leadership position,” he wrote.

A while back, Hall put up a Black Lives Matter poster in his office.

“That really offends me,” an employee said during a meeting in the office.

The employee, who no longer works at the Co-op, told Hall that he was going to raise the poster issue with the Human Resources Department. At a governing board meeting soon after, it was recommended that he remove the poster from his office, Hall said.

To go along to get along, he did. “I didn’t want to stir up any issues,” he said.

The Co-op is an Upper Valley institution. With 25,000 members, it has cornered the upscale grocery shopping market, racking up $70 million in annual sales.

By offering more local produce and meats, the Co-op pretends it’s different than the big supermarket chains along Route 12A. But the stores have had trouble living up to the holier-than-thou image that the organization tries to cultivate — particularly when it comes to treatment of workers.

In 2014, two longtime Co-op employees were fired abruptly without being told why. It was no secret, however, that Co-op management viewed John Boutin and Dan King as troublemakers for their work behind the scenes to get the rank-and-file interested in starting a union.

With Boutin and King out of the way, the unionizing effort never got off the ground. In 2016, the two former employees reached an out-of-court settlement in a wrongful-termination lawsuit against the Co-op. Details weren’t disclosed.

Now come Hall’s allegations.

I met him on his day off. Among the documents that he shared was a letter of recommendation that Fox wrote last December.

Fox himself was a change agent. He was hired in 2016 in the aftermath of the firing of Boutin and King, which drew the ire of Co-op employees and members. In one of his early moves, Fox helped recruit Hall, who was working for a grocery store chain in North Carolina.

“From the beginning, Doren brought impressive credentials to the table: amazing experience, keen judgment, a warm personality, an inspiring story and an unsurpassed knowledge of the industry,” Fox wrote.

Hall grew up in Suffolk, Va., a small coastal city about 40 miles from the North Carolina border.

When Hall was 8, he witnessed his mother’s murder in a convenience store parking lot. While waiting to get gas, Hall’s mother was fatally stabbed in an unprovoked attack by a woman who had caused a disturbance at their house a day earlier, he said.

In the minutes after losing his mother, Hall listened to the white cops who responded to scene talk about it being just more Black-on-Black crime.

“No big deal,” Hall recalled overhearing a cop say. “This is what they do to each other.”

Hall was raised by his grandmother. His first job, at age 15, was bagging groceries at a Food Lion supermarket. As a 17-year-old high school senior, Hall became a father and “had to make money,” he said.

He worked 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. as an overnight grocery store manager. School started an hour later.

“I had just enough time to get a shower and put on regular clothes,” he said.

After graduating from high school, Hall joined the Army. He served in Iraq, following the first U.S. invasion in the early 1990s.

With his time in the military up, he returned home to Virginia to become an assistant store manager with Food Lion. He went on to manage multiple stores for other supermarket chains in the South. Wild Oats, which merged with Whole Foods in 2007, put Hall in charge of what at the time was its largest store in the country. Along the way, Hall earned a bachelor’s degree from Virginia Tech.

In late 2016, Fox persuaded him to take charge of the Lebanon Co-op, where he starts his 12-hour days before the delivery trucks start rolling in around 4 a.m.

“I love being here,” Hall wrote in a Co-op newsletter, shortly after arriving. “This sort of cooperative community is exactly what I’ve been looking for.”

In mid-March, the Co-op’s governing board picked Charland to be the “first woman to lead the Co-op as general manager,” Board President Nick Clark wrote to members.

Charland started with the Co-op in 2012 as its sustainability coordinator and later became director of cooperative engagement.

In his discrimination complaint filed with the Human Rights Commission, Hall referred to Charland as a Caucasian with “no store manager experience.”

Before going to the commission, Hall wrote to the Co-op board on March 31, and he didn’t hold back.

“The feedback I received from my candidacy was that I was not a proven leader in a multi-unit environment,” he wrote. “I do not understand how that conclusion can be reached after reading my resume and the numerous references provided.”

“This decision to me seems biased, pre-planned and racial,” he added.

Hall waited almost six weeks for a response.

“While we are saddened about the disappointment that you have expressed, we hope that this message can provide assurance that our decision was made for legitimate business and cooperative reasons, rather than on any improper basis,” Clark, the board president, wrote.

By the time he received Clark’s “rehearsed answer,” Hall was already in touch with the Human Rights Commission to learn more about formally contesting the situation.

If the commission’s investigation finds “probable cause,” it could schedule a public hearing. The seven-member commission has the authority to impose fines on employers and award compensatory damages to complainants.

It’s a lengthy process and could ultimately end up in state court, unless the two sides agree to mediation along the way.

Hall, who lives in Cornish with his girlfriend, told me that he plans to continue working at the Co-op.

“I could walk away and get another job,” he said. “But if I left now, I’d feel like was abandoning my employees, who are great people. I’m going to do the best I can for them and the Co-op.

“My goal is to bring to light how the board and the (Co-op’s) leadership treat people. What they’re doing is not OK.”

Jim Kenyon can be reached at jkenyon@vnews.com.

Valley News

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