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Capital Region grocery providers also among front-line heroes

Rising to the Challenge

Capital Region grocery providers also among front-line heroes

Getting groceries into the hands of the public has been a highly scrutinized and deeply needed role
Capital Region grocery providers also among front-line heroes
Alex Mytelka, left, and Stephen Quickenton inside Honest Weight Food Co-op in Albany on April 17.
Photographer: ERICA MILLER/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER  

Grocery workers might be the unsung heroes of the COVID-19 pandemic.

From those who load and drive trucks of supplies to the people who stock the shelves and run the checkout register, getting groceries into the hands of the public has been a highly scrutinized and deeply needed role. The people who bridge it all together are the store managers, each required to anticipate the demands of the store’s customers while learning how to adapt to runs on items and the changing requirements of the job in real time.

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We spoke to a few local grocery managers, including those who are new to the job, seasoned pros and shop owners who have remade their inventories to better serve their neighbors, as in the case of coffee shop owner Felicity Jones. Below are their responses. We attempted to speak with managers at larger retailers, such as Price Chopper and Hannaford, and also with locally owned family grocers, but due to restrictions at the time, we received no response or a declination to participate.

Stephen Quickenton, director of operations, Honest Weight: Food Co-op, Albany

Q: What has been the biggest change to your position since the COVID-19 pandemic began?

A: The biggest change to my job since the pandemic began is the huge increase in the number of decisions I’m making day to day. So many little things are coming up each day that we need to work through. As an independent, community-owned grocery store, we don’t have policy decisions coming down to us from some big corporate office — we’re making them all on the fly, right here on the front lines, each and every day. Whether it’s working through canceled or late product shipments, order restrictions, staffing, procuring face coverings, queueing customers, social distancing … the list goes on and on!

Rising to the Challenge: Faces of the COVID-19 crisis in the Capital Region

Q: What has been the biggest change to your store since the pandemic began?

A: The biggest changes have been the transition to everyone wearing face coverings and the shift away from food service. We like to smile a lot here at the co-op, and it’s not easy to smile through a face-covering. We started giving out reusable masks to our staff and member-owners investing time in the store as early as we could procure them, and we made it mandatory shortly afterward. All of [our] food service areas are currently closed. We have many of the staff from our kitchen helping out in other areas of the store. Now we have about half the customer count we used to, and our basket size has nearly doubled.

Q: Of these changes, which do you think will last beyond the pandemic? What way will things “return to normal?”

A: I think for food service, it will take time even after restrictions are lifted for people to return to their previous comfort levels with our hot bar and salad bar.

Q: Which items have been highly sought during this time?

A: We’re fortunate that we deal with so many local farms and local producers. We’ve been able to avoid many national supply chain bottlenecks by buying locally. It’s mostly items you would expect that we’ve seen increased demand on: produce, soup, pasta, pasta sauce, fresh chicken, fresh beef, frozen veggies and frozen fruit. With people spending so much time at home, we’re also seeing a big uptick on baking products like yeast and flour, and even puzzles.

Q: What’s been the biggest strain or problem for your store during this pandemic? How have you been able to manage or solve it?

A: About 20 percent of our staff is either not working or working reduced hours due to the pandemic. They have made these decisions either because they wish to self-quarantine to protect themselves and/or family members, or due to child care. Our whole team has come together to fill in the gaps — we have cooks on cash registers, administrative staff stocking the shelves — it’s truly been a cooperative effort.

 

Q: Do you feel there are aspects of Honest Weight Food Co-op that were particularly well-suited to handling grocery needs through this pandemic?

A: Being an independent small business has been a major advantage. We’ve been able to take steps to protect our staff and shoppers long before many of the chain supermarkets because we don’t need to wait for corporate approval to do the right thing. We have a bulk foods department with over 1,000 items. It has held up particularly well during the pandemic in terms of having fewer out-of-stocks than we’ve seen in the regular grocery aisles. We have strong relationships with many of our suppliers, and our suppliers aren’t just our suppliers — they are friends. This has come to serve us very well.

Q: On a personal level, what have you learned through this pandemic because of your position at the co-op?

A: The fact that we’re still getting our products out onto the shelves and have found ways to continue to serve our customers through all of this has shown me that we truly can get through anything.

Dennis Hanley: Interim general manager, Niskayuna Co-op

Q: What has been the biggest change to your position since the COVID-19 pandemic began?

A: Social distancing, masks, gloves and keeping all customers and team safe.

Q: Which items have been highly sought during this time?

A: Hand sanitizer and comfort foods.

Q: What’s been the biggest strain or problem for your store during this pandemic? How have you been able to manage or solve it?

A: We just want all customers and team to be healthy.

Q: Is there anything that’s surprised you through all of this? Was there something you didn’t expect that you’ve come to notice?

A: The Niskayuna community is coming together and helping each other through. Team members [are] doing amazingly good, and doing so much more in this unprecedented time.

Q: On a personal level, what have you learned through this pandemic because of your position at the Co-Op?

A: When people are in crisis, many rise above and others just need proper guidance. People have amazing hearts and kindness.

Photo provided: Felicity Jones of Superior Merchandise Company in Troy. Photo Provided
Felicity Jones of Superior Merchandise Company in Troy.

Felicity Jones: Co-owner, Superior Merchandise Co., Troy

Q: What has been the biggest change to your position since the COVID-19 pandemic began?

A: I went from managing and maintaining a pretty well-oiled machine back to the frenzied-scrambled, changing day to day, chaos of running a new business/startup. I’m constantly having to get creative and come up with our “next trick” to boost sales. I’m bouncing from making drinks to packing online orders to making massive batches of pickled onions to tending to social media, placing grocery, beverage and supply orders, keeping our website up to date, working on spring menu recipes and just trying to remember to breathe.

Q: How did you transition so quickly to changing your business model to offer groceries?

A: When we first made the switch for to-go only, we transitioned from a community gathering space to just a quick convenient stop for our guests. The grocery section came about because we wanted to fill the needs of our neighbors and community when staples were in short supply elsewhere. By using our existing suppliers, other local businesses and farms to fill our shelves we are helping support our community even further. In order to minimize contact between our guests and our staff, we used our existing web infrastructure to create a kind of DIY online ordering platform. This change in how we interact with our customers is probably the biggest difference for us, and I personally cannot wait to be able to interact more personally again. I miss our regulars so much!

Q: Of these changes, which do you think will last beyond the pandemic? What way will things “return to normal?”

A: We don’t know what the outcome of all of this will be, really, so it’s too soon to tell what changes will remain in place and what will go back to normal. Since the beginning, Superior has been constantly changing and morphing to best fit the needs of our community, and we always plan to do that.

 

Q: Which items have been highly sought during this time?

A: The essentials have definitely been selling well, but we’ve also seen many people treating themselves to items like bottles of natural wine, Bread Alone Bakery cookie packs, and our house-made jars of pickled red onions and everything seasoning. Our sales of in-house coffee brand Touchy Coffee whole beans have also been through the roof, which has been incredibly helpful since the drop in foot traffic. 

Q: Have you seen an increase in customers, or has transitioning to groceries brought in new/different customers?

A: We haven’t had an increase in customers, but people have been stocking up so to speak, which has thankfully boosted our average sale value. We’re still seeing a lot of the same familiar faces from the neighborhood.

Q: What’s been the biggest strain or problem for your SMCo during this pandemic? How have you been able to manage or solve it?

A: It has been very difficult to make all of these necessary adaptations while still keeping our high standard of service. Online orders have been especially hard to navigate because we always want our food and beverages to be served as fresh as possible.

Rising to the Challenge: Faces of the COVID-19 crisis in the Capital Region

Q: Is there anything that’s surprised you through all of this? Was there something you didn’t expect that you’ve come to notice?

A: It’s been surprising and so sweet seeing guests, present and past, reach out and support us from near and far. RPI students who were regulars and now live across the country, college friends, high school teachers, old pen pals, acquaintances, friends and family, all supporting us in various ways. Everyone is cheering us on and wishing the best for us, and it feels really good. 

Q: Do you feel there are aspects of your business that were particularly well-suited to handling grocery needs through this pandemic?

A: Yes, for sure. We already had suppliers set in place, connections with local farms and makers, and a convenient downtown location. People have always known us to be a kind of one-stop shop and now we are that even more so. 

Q: On a personal level, what have you learned through this pandemic because of your position at Superior Merchandise Co?

A: I’ve become so much better under pressure. I’m normally an insane preplanning perfectionist, and this situation has forced me to learn to roll with the punches a bit more. Also, those two-plus glasses of wine at the end of the night are 100 percent necessary to stay sane.

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