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Local Grocers Adapt to Meet Customer Needs During Pandemic

photo of a woman
ADAM MELNYK
/
SHUTTERSTOCK
Stores have had a hard time keeping some items in stock.

When we think about frontline responders, we usually think about people who save lives and rush into burning buildings. But in this pandemic, many frontline workers stock shelves and operate cash registers at grocery stores of all sizes.

When word first began spreading that coronavirus was deadly, contagious and close to home, newscasts showed panicky shoppers emptying stores of bread, milk and toilet paper.

But that wasn’t the case everywhere.

“The organic meats everybody went after that. They were stocking up their freezers and so on. Our free range chicken everyone went after that, chicken we couldn’t keep it in stock,” said David Krieger who co-owns Seven Grains Natural Market in Tallmadge with his wife, Gina.  

In the beginning, Seven Grains had a rush of shoppers, like other stores, he said.  But instead of the cold and flu aisle, customers hit the produce section for nature’s immune system boosters.

“They were buying fresh ginger root in volume, turmeric root in volume, garlic, even lemons for that matter, anything that had vitamin C in it,” he said.

Across town, Family Groceries is a popular store that serves Akron’s Bhutanese community. Naresh Subba, who owns the store with his brother, said they also experienced panic shopping -- with a twist.

“Customers came in big numbers, and they just emptied my entire supply of rice,” he said. “Hoarding, I guess, is the right word.”

Countryside Market also serves a niche customer base. The market carries locally grown food at several locations in Summit County. It runs all winter out of Old Trail School in the Cuyahoga Valley National Park.

But when the schools were closed, they decided to quickly transform into Countryside Curbside to fill carryout orders from the school’s parking lot, said  Countryside CEO Tracy Emrick.

“It was a massive undertaking,” she said. “We had two weeks, and my staff worked nonstop to get it done.”

Then, on Countryside Curbside’s pickup day, a freak storm blew through the area, complete with hail. Countryside’s seven person staff was also trying to fill nearly 400 orders, instead of the anticipated 100 or so.

“I guess the only good word to describe it was sort of a disaster,” Emrick said.

In part, Countryside’s increase in customers is because the pandemic is making people appreciate locally grown food even more. 

“The number of hands handling the product is far fewer than a traditional grocery store supply chain, and you don’t have things sitting out on display where people can walk by and accidently cough or sneeze,” Emrick said.

Even so, she says her staff felt they had let many people down.

“They wanted to help people so much, the farmers and the food producers,” she said. “They really know how important this is for them financially. And they know how many customers rely on food from the farmers markets for groceries and we accepted SNAP through this.”

Since then, Countryside has developed a system that works no matter the weather.

The grocers are taking steps to protect workers from the virus, but in a small store, like Family Groceries, cashiers are in a tough spot, Subba said.

“When it comes to the cashier that’s the most difficult one because they have to be pretty close to the customers,” he said. The safety measures worry his customers.

“The customers are kind of like, you know they’re apprehensive, ‘Why are these people wearing masks? Are they sick?’ They don’t tell us, but they’re a little scared,” he said.

The safety attire elicits a similar response at Seven Grains. Krieger’s workers can choose to wear it or not, Krieger said.

“Sure it’s important to be safe but it’s their decision. If they don’t want to wear them they don’t wear them and that’s great too because it’s less alarming to the guests,” he said.

Krieger says his customers have behaved well since the start of the pandemic.

“Everyone just has a quiet understating of the situation,” he said. “They know it’s serious, they understand that. They’re all conducting themselves in a civil manner and a civil tongue. We’re moving through it.”

Emrick encourages people to continue shopping local for everyone’s sake.

“Support your local businesses. They need us now more than ever before,” she said. “It is critical that we continue to support our local economy through this.”