On April 8th, Lisa Portes had just purchased $40 worth of groceries at the Whole Foods Market in Lincoln Park and was treating her children to pudding in the café when she realized she needed one more item. She also realized she was late to pick up her husband.
So Portes, 43, the head of directing at DePaul University’s Theatre School, grabbed a $13 bottle of dinosaur-shaped chewable vitamins and began texting her husband that she was running late. Then her four-year-old announced he had to go to the bathroom. Juggling a cell phone, a wallet, keys, three coats, two kids, and a sustainable cloth bag filled with groceries, Portes managed a successful bathroom visit.
Moments later in the parking lot, a security guard stopped the family and asked them to come back inside. In the confusion, Portes had put the vitamins in her bag and walked out without buying them. Mortified, she explained the situation and offered to pay. Instead, the guard took her to a manager’s office, where he snapped her photo, told her to sign a document, and banned her from Whole Foods for life. Her protests—I just bought $40 worth of groceries! I’m in here every week!—fell on deaf ears. Enraged, she grabbed her kids and left.
Our natural instinct is to judge Portes guilty of an honest mistake and Whole Foods guilty of grossly overreacting. But from the store’s perspective, it’s hard to distinguish the Lisa Porteses from the real criminals: Those who get caught with items they didn’t pay for always have a story about how this is all just One Big Mistake. “A lot of shoplifters use children as decoys,” says Rachel Shteir, who is writing a book about shoplifting. (Shteir, coincidentally, is one of Portes’s colleagues at DePaul.) “And a lot of them buy some goods but steal others.” In other words, Portes looked exactly like a shoplifter. The ban, Shteir says, was obviously meant to shame Portes, but a zero-tolerance policy also prevents habitual shoplifters—say, “boosters” who turn around and sell stolen goods online—from talking their way out of trouble. In this context, one can understand why Whole Foods doesn’t try to figure out which people did it intentionally. A rigid protocol lessens the frequency of customer lawsuits regarding false arrests, racial profiling, and injuries during apprehension.
But the Whole Foods logic didn’t appease Portes. The incident continued to rankle her. She wrote a letter to the company expressing her displeasure and received a detailed e-mail response from Rich Howley, the store’s team leader, who explained the policy and backed the security guard’s actions. In the end, Howley said he believed Portes and would reinstate her. (Though not before getting in a shot of his own: “Would you want me in your home if you found me leaving your home with property of yours?”) Kate Klotz, a Whole Foods spokeswoman, says that the company considers each incident separately and cannot comment further on Portes.
The last time Portes drove up Kingsbury Street, her four-year-old blurted out what the whole family was thinking: “That’s the Whole Foods that kicked your butt right out of there.” Everyone laughed. Then, three weeks after Howley’s response, Portes received a letter from a collection company demanding $250 on behalf of Whole Foods, citing an Illinois law that permits merchants to recover monetary damages from shoplifters. Klotz says the letter was sent in error, and that Whole Foods does not expect Portes to pay the $250—but Portes still has not forgiven the company for the whole ordeal. “Protocol or no protocol, Whole Foods projects an environment of community and friendliness, and it’s not real,” she says. “They didn’t leave the slightest margin for human error. I’m just a frazzled mom.” A frazzled mom who, despite her reinstatement, will never shop at Whole Foods again.