A band of bootylicious, bikini-clad women jiggling and bouncing to hip-hop music while they washed cars in the Southside Plaza parking lot in front of Farmer's Foods were no match for Rodney Saunders. Nor were the drug dealers, accustomed to setting up shop in front of the liquor store a few doors down.
Saunders, a bespectacled grocery store manager known for confronting drug dealers and chasing off “half-naked” car-washing women who disturbed his customers has done well for himself — so well that the owner of the nine-store grocery chain, Johnny Farmer, tapped him to take over the Highland Springs store last week.
It's just that no one told the small group of protestors milling about in front of Farmer's Foods on Nov. 13.
“Stand for Justice,” reads the cardboard sign carried by Delores Elam, who leads the Mustard Seed of Faith Missionary Ministry and Family Support Group, which she says was founded by God. Another line reads: “Satan wanting to fire mgr. Rodney, a crime preventer.”
Charles Willis, president of the Jefferson Davis Neighborhood Civic Association, organized the protest and demands answers from Farmer during a cell phone call. He puts Farmer on speakerphone, holds the phone up over his head, and the group huddles in. “It's really an advancement for him,” Farmer says, his voice crackling through the tiny speaker. Elam, still clutching her sign, with “Satan” highlighted in red marker, remains unconvinced: “How does he feel about it?”
It's hard to tell. Saunders says he didn't want to leave his community, where he's built a special bond with customers, employees and the surrounding neighborhood since opening Farmer's at the Plaza in 2004. His store is spotless, the shelves meticulously kept, the clerks friendly and courteous.
It's all because of Saunders, the protestors say. At a follow-up meeting at Plaza Bowl on Monday morning, they make their pitch to Farmer in person. He tells them that Saunders' replacement, Ben Campbell, previously the manager at the Louisa store, is an able manager. Campbell didn't endear himself when he greeted the protestors Friday with a wide grin: “I'm better than Mr. Saunders,” he said good-naturedly.
Everyone has a different management style, says Farmer, who describes himself as “the lion and the lamb” management type. Some, admittedly, are lions and some are lambs. Presumably, a special few are both.
What about Saunders? He's a crime fighter, the community activists tell Farmer. The dealers know Saunders doesn't put up with drugs in front of his store, says Keesha Haskins, vice president of the McGuire-Swansboro Civic Association. On Nov. 14, the Saturday after the protest, she visits the Plaza and notices the drug dealers were already back in front of the ABC store, she says: “It was like a 360.”
Farmer tells the group if it can convince Saunders to take his old job back, he's fine with it. No repercussions. After a nearly an hour of discussion, the old man gives one of the women a fist bump and heads off.
Elam seems conflicted. She brought a new sign without the Satan reference. “I got the wrong information the first time,” she says.