Trumbull business owner stunned by gouging complaints

TRUMBULL — Four days after a firestorm of criticism erupted online, Fadi Zabarakji said he wishes people had just talked to him rather than venting their anger in a series of increasingly hostile social media posts.

“I’ve been here seven, eight years. I live in this town. I’m a part of this community,” Zabarakji said. “People know me. I’ve never had a problem with anyone.”

Zabarakji owns the Trumbull Food Mart and Shell gas station on White Plains Road. Most days, a stream of customers come and go in his store. This week, though, the customers were joined by investigators from the state Attorney General’s office, the Department of Consumer Protection and the Trumbull police after accusations of price gouging at his business began running rampant online.

Attorney General William Tong himself, in a statement earlier this week, said the state would take aggressive action against price gouging, which is defined as increasing the price of an item more than could be justified by ordinary market fluctuations.

“Bad actors are using this pandemic to take advantage of the vulnerable and those who fear for their health and safety,” Tong said. “We will not tolerate price gouging during this public health emergency, and we will take aggressive action to stop it.”

Calls to the Attorney General’s Office and Trumbull Detective Division were not immediately returned Friday. Zabarakji said he has been cleared of wrongdoing.

Most of the complaints centered on a $25 price tag for a bottle of hand sanitizer and $12.99 cases of bottled water.

“I’m a gas station and convenience store, I don’t normally carry hand sanitizer,” Zabarakji said. “But people were asking for it, so I asked my distributors. None of them had any.”

Zabarakji said he ended up purchasing hand sanitizer from a vendor that came by the store over the weekend.

“The guy had a van full top to bottom with sanitizer, $20 for a 8-ounce bottle,” he said. “I thought the price was pretty good honestly, because I saw online people were charging $60.”

Zabarakji ended up spending $1,200 with the street vendor, then he marked up the items about $4 to $5 each, which brought the sticker price on the bottles to $24.99 and $26.99.

“Next thing I know, people are taking pictures of the bottles and posting online,” he said. “Someone from the Attorney General is coming in here, the police are calling me. It was unbelievable.”

Online, some posters urged boycotts and public shaming campaigns. Others vowed to never set foot in the store again, and to share their disgust with their entire social media network.

After seeing the reaction, Zabarakji said he took the bottles off the shelf.

“It just wasn’t worth it. I gave them to my family and some friends that needed them,” he said.

A similar social media storm occurred just days later when the store began selling cases of 16.9-ounce bottled water for $12.99, which is $3 more than he usually charges when he stocks bottled water by the case during the warmer months.

“People were looking for water and no one had it,” he said. “I couldn’t even buy it at BJs.”

Only one of his suppliers had water available, and Zabarakji bought 54 cases for a total of $438.30, he said. He showed an invoice to Hearst Connecticut Media to prove the cost of the water.

“That works out to $8.11 per case, and I put a sign on them $12.99,” he said. “After you take off for the deposit on the bottles, I was getting $11.79 a case and making a little over $3.”

Part of the problem is that shoppers are likely used to purchasing bottled water at supermarkets and big-box retailers, he said.

“They buy by the tractor-trailer load. I’m a little guy, I can’t buy for what they pay. People come here to buy gas, they get one bottle of water, they don’t come in here to buy cases,” he said.

Through it all, Znbarakji said he wished someone had just come in and asked him to explain his prices.

“I never wanted to make a killing,” he said. “I wanted to have something available for people that needed it.”