Photo by Jessica CalkinsAli Kachueian might be the most faithful Trader Joe's customer in Irvine, maybe even the entire continental United States. The 45-year-old manager of a pizza joint in University Center (he also works three days a week as a head projectionist at Edwards University 6 Theater) says he's shopped around the corner at the University Center Trader Joe's supermarket five times a day since it opened for business two years ago.
"I buy my breakfast there each day," Kachueian said. "Then I go back and buy a PowerBar or a drink, then lunch. In the afternoon, I buy ice cream and some fruity stuff for dinner. If not five times a day, I definitely shop there three times a day."
Kachueian keeps shopping at Trader Joe's even though he is at war with the company over an incident he says occurred at the store about eight months ago while he was buying a bag of basmati rice. He claims that's when a male Trader Joe's supervisor—speaking loudly enough for other customers to hear—ordered him to leave the store immediately. Kachueian said the employee accused him of trying to "grab and kiss" a customer and that he had been routinely harassing female employees.
"I was wondering if he was just joking," Kachueian recalled. "I said, 'Listen, my friend, either you are pulling my leg or you have the wrong person. In that moment—very loud and right in the middle of the store—he said, 'No, you did it! You tried to kiss the girl!' People were looking at me like they were thinking, 'Who is this rapist?'"
Kachueian said he told the employee to call Irvine police if he wanted to eject him from the store. Then he approached a store manager and asked for a customer complaint form. Before leaving, Kachueian approached a female cashier to pay for his rice. His accuser followed him, ordering him to leave the store. When the cashier realized what was going on, she rose to Kachueian's defense, repeatedly saying, "It's not him! It's not him! He's a regular customer!"
At that point, Kachueian says his accuser backed off, but not without a warning.
"He told me, 'In this case, you're off the hook.' I told him, 'No, I was never on the hook, but I am going to put you on the hook!'"
Before Kachueian could plot his revenge, he says, two Trader Joe's managers came to apologize for the confusion. But he refused to accept the apology. "They didn't do anything, so there was no need for them to apologize," Kachueian said, adding that he wanted a direct apology from his accuser. A few hours later, Kachueian says, his accuser showed up at the pizza store with an unhappy expression on his face. But instead of apologizing, the employee told him to "forget about what happened."
Kachueian said he told the man to leave the pizza store or he would call the police. The next day, he called Trader Joe's customer relations department and demanded that someone at the University Center store hold a sign at the entrance to the store to apologize for besmirching his reputation. The customer relations agent told Kachueian that would be impossible. So Kachueian said he asked the agent to fire the employee, but says he was informed that would not happen either.
"I think he wanted to see if I wanted money," Kachueian said. "But I don't want money. I told him that if it was a matter of money, why don't you spend it on TV and radio and apologize that way. He said he wasn't going to do any of that. All he would do was say he was sorry. He hung up."
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Two months later, Kachueian says, he got a visit from a Trader Joe's employee who said he was going to be fired for joking with a customer, who then complained to a store manager. "This really pissed me off," he said. "The guy who insults me, who ruins my reputation, they don't fire. They fire the guy who tells a joke. I call that prejudice."
"We made a mistake," said Pat St. John, Trader Joe's vice president for sales and marketing. "We offered him a letter of apology, which he didn't want to accept unless we were willing to post it in front of the store on a sandwich board. . . . Our assistant manager who made the mistake was reprimanded but not fired, as he demanded, and he wasn't willing to accept anything else."
While Kachueian waits for more elaborate apologies that will never be offered, he hopes people who read this story will talk to each other and spread the word of his innocence. Kachueian smiled as he translated a Persian saying that seemed to sum up his strategy: "One mouth tells a million ears."
His friends have advised him to sue the company, but Kachueian says that would be unfair. "Trader Joe's didn't do anything to me," he said, adding that he sees no contradiction in the fact that he continues to shop there every day. "If I had walked out of the store and never came back, who would think I was innocent?" he said. "But because I am innocent, I keep going to the store. Why should I run away?"