Karen Himmaugh, wearing a mask and gloves, rings up Barbara Bunker’s groceries from behind a plexiglass barrier at Piazza’s Fine Foods in Palo Alto on April 9, 2020. (Photo by Magali Gauthier)

‘We’re the ones everyone’s counting on.’ Here’s how local grocery stores are responding to the coronavirus

Eggs are sold out. Hand sanitizer is on backorder. Strained staff are working overtime, on the front lines as grocery stores quickly adapt.

Running a local grocery store under the shadow of the coronavirus means ordering wearable face shields for employees alongside eggs and milk.

It means pivoting to home delivery on a dime without the technological infrastructure or resources that major delivery apps have.

It means asking employees at the start of every shift, before they can begin work, if they or anyone they live with has a fever, cough or any symptoms of COVID-19 and documenting their responses.

It means booming sales, but at the expense of overworked staff who are now considered essential workers.

The coronavirus “turned everything on its head,” said Emel Mutlu, who runs The Market at Edgewood in Palo Alto with her father and husband. “There’s a lot of emotional labor — that’s what I’ve been calling it — involved in keeping the place going.”

Locally operated grocery stores and their employees are on their own front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic. Their owners, many with families themselves, have worked quickly to transform their stores and operations to comply with fast-moving public health guidance, including last week’s more stringent measures for essential businesses. Bay Area counties are now requiring that grocery stores limit the number of people allowed inside at one time, assign an employee to regularly disinfect carts and baskets and conduct the daily symptom checks with staff, among other precautions.

Sunita de Tourreil looks for disinfectant at Whole Foods Market in downtown Palo Alto on March 18, 2020. (Photo by Magali Gauthier)

On the Midpeninsula, grocery stores’ responses to COVID-19 have intensified over the last few weeks as the number of local cases spiked and public health officials doubled down on urging social distancing. The Market at Edgewood, for example, initially encouraged people to continue to bring their own reusable shopping bags due to a shortage in paper goods; now, under the new Bay Area restrictions, people are not allowed in with outside bags.

After the Bay Area public health leaders started asking residents to cover their faces with a cloth when going out for essential activities, the store started requiring employees to wear face masks and encouraging customers to do so.

This week, Bianchini’s Market in Portola Valley also started asking staff to wear masks, either ones supplied by the market or their own. Every cashier at Mountain View’s 99 Ranch Market, an Asian supermarket chain, working this week behind plexiglass at the registers, also wore plastic face shields, masks and blue nitrile gloves. (In Los Angeles, a new order is mandating both employees and customers at essential businesses wear face coverings.)

Many local markets installed plexiglass dividers at check stands as a barrier between staff and customers, including at Piazza’s Fine Foods in Palo Alto and San Mateo, Sigona’s Farmers Market in Palo Alto and Redwood City, and Draeger’s Market in Menlo Park, Los Altos and San Mateo. The Market at Edgewood hasn’t but instead purchased individual face shields for staff.

The aisles at Draeger’s and The Market at Edgewood are now one-way only, with arrows in blue tape on the floors, like makeshift traffic signals, directing customers.

Small, independent markets are presenting themselves as a calmer option to the national chain stores, which have become synonymous with long lines outside and picked-over shelves. At Sigona’s, the volume of customers is down by about 20–30%, but the average sale has more than doubled, Sigona’s owner Carmelo Sigona said.

Grocery stores across the Bay Area are now required to limit the number of people inside at one time and have staff at their entrances count customers as they come in. The Market at Edgewood’s cap is currently 30, for example, and Sigona’s Stanford Shopping Center, a small store with narrow aisles, is limited to 20. Both stores are now asking customers to shop alone, rather than with another person from their household, though The Market at Edgewood is enforcing it while Sigona’s is only encouraging it, following pushback from some customers. Stores are discouraging cash payments, though Sigona’s has come up with its own system to accommodate it, using a basket that’s wiped down after every exchange of money.

Customers keep six feet away from one another outside Piazza’s Fine Foods in Palo Alto on April 9, 2020. The store is limiting the total number of customers inside at one time to 30. (Photo by Magali Gauthier)

Local markets have also shortened their hours of operations. Piazza’s now closes an hour earlier than usual, time the staff spends sanitizing the entire store, from PIN pads and cash registers to door handles and bathroom faucets. Piazza’s now has a person in each store whose sole responsibility is cleaning throughout the day.

Country Sun Natural Foods on Palo Alto’s California Avenue is temporarily closed on Saturdays to “give our staff a break.” (The small market is also hiring. “During this extraordinary time, we’re especially in need of employees,” Country Sun posted to Twitter recently.)

Early morning shopping hours for seniors, immunocompromised people and pregnant women have been adopted at Midpeninsula stores including Sigona’s, Draeger’s, Country Sun, Robert’s Market in Portola Valley and Woodside, Ava’s Downtown Market in Mountain View and 99 Ranch Market in Mountain View. Other markets that haven’t carved out special hours are giving seniors priority in the checkout line, such as at Piazza’s.

Local market owners are seeing firsthand the ripple effects of the coronavirus on the supply chain. Cleaning products like toilet paper and sanitizing wipes have been the hardest to restock — even getting hand sanitizer or disinfecting wipes for the store’s use to comply with the counties’ public health guidance has proved challenging, they said.

Eggs, chicken, canned goods, pasta and rice have disappeared quickly from shelves. Flour and yeast have been in unusually high demand as many homebound people turn to baking. (The Market at Edgewood has promoted its full yeast stock on social media, with a touch of humor: “Come all ye yeast lovers,” Mutlu posted to Facebook in late March.)

Draeger’s has responded by limiting customers’ purchases to only two of certain items, such as eggs, milk, cheese, chicken, toilet paper, paper towels, disinfectants, rice, pasta, cheese and frozen entrees, according to the market’s website.

Fresh produce from California, however, is in “full swing,” Sigona said. Sigona’s is also getting ample specialty products, like cheese, from producers who would normally sell to restaurants, many of which are temporarily closed or running skeleton operations.

The initial wave of anxious customers overbuying at grocery stores has subsided, Mutlu said, but the effects are still lingering on the system.

“It’s like a domino effect. As soon as consumers hoard, markets start to hoard. Distributors are caught in a conundrum: How do we distribute very limited product quickly to people who are overbuying? They encourage markets like us to do responsible buying in the same way we’re trying to get customers to do responsible buying,” she said.

Dina Abarca, who manages the deli at Bianchini’s, said she sees customers coming into the store several times throughout the week, and some even more than once in a single day.

“I personally would love for customers to take this seriously and stay home if it’s not something essential they need,” she said. “It’s just another way of exposing themselves and us to something that we don’t know we have until it’s too late.”

People should shop less frequently, she said, “for us, who are there for them.”

Signage reminding customers of social distancing protocols are posted throughout Piazza’s Fine Foods in Palo Alto. (Photo by Magali Gauthier)

Supporting grocery store workers — but is it enough?

Grocery stores, both national chains and locally operated markets, are temporarily providing additional compensation to employees as they risk their own health to work long hours and keep up with demand.

Safeway and Target employees, for example, have received temporary $2 per hour raises, while Trader Joe’s has promised bonuses for its staff, according to media reports.

Locally, two markets — Sigona’s and Bianchini’s — gave all employees a $2 per hour raise. Sigona’s also expedited raises for employees who were on the cusp of receiving them before the shelter-at-home order took effect. Bianchini’s also gave workers an additional $100 gift card to shop at the store.

Draeger’s recently gave its employees a $500 bonus and on Wednesday announced they would also be receiving a $3 per hour raise in hazard pay, according to an employee. The Draeger’s family declined an interview for this story and would not disclose “financials or compensation.” An Instagram post states the market is encouraging employees to use paid sick leave and family leave provided through their union.

Piazza’s, meanwhile, gave its employees a 30% discount at its stores. The Market at Edgewood gave all employees, both part- and full-time, a one-time bonus. Mutlu declined to disclose the amount.

“No amount of money can buy the sense of security with what’s going on, but it’s a step in the right direction, at least acknowledging we are doing work that is considered hazardous now,” said Abarca, a single mother who supports her three children and nephew. “Grocery personnel was never considered an essential, but all of a sudden … we’re the ones everyone’s counting on.”

Katherine Tincher checks her grocery list while shopping at Bianchini’s Market in Portola Valley on March 20, 2020. (Photo by Sammy Dallal)

The day the initial shelter-at-home order was announced was “madness” at Bianchini’s, Abarca said: “It was like the whole town was in the store.”

She was scheduled to work from 5 a.m. to 2 p.m. but didn’t leave until 5 p.m.

The deli quickly shifted to packaging to-go hot meals and salads, but sales in that department have dropped dramatically, while the grocery is struggling to keep items stocked.

Abarca said she feels confident in the precautions Bianchini’s is taking at the store but is still worried about potentially exposing her children and nephew. When she walks into her home in Belle Haven at the end of the day, her 4-year-old son, who has asthma, wants a hug — but she refrains from doing so until she can shower, put on fresh clothes and put what she wore to work in the washing machine.

“What’s the point of me taking care of the kids if I’m going to bring something home to them?” she said.

Kimberly Atwater, a manager at Draeger’s in Menlo Park, said she’s been working overtime since the first shelter-at-home order took effect, some days as long as 14 hours. She worries about getting sick herself but more so for her coworkers who have children or elderly parents or are at-risk themselves. National and local reports of grocery store workers who have died from COVID-19 underscore their concerns.

Draeger’s has provided some masks but not enough for all staff members, Atwater said. One checker who is older than 65 years old and has health issues was initially told not to come in, but he has continued to work because of the uncertainty of securing unemployment in a timely fashion, she said.

As Atwater has watched sales at Draeger’s shoot up by as much as 50% and the store raise its prices, she said she hopes to see that “trickle down to those of us who are here doing the work.”

On a recent afternoon at Ava’s Downtown Market, Jonathan Angeles, a 19-year-old cashier, wore one of the masks that were donated to the Castro Street store by a San Jose State University professor. Angeles said Ava’s is giving employees a hazard bonus but he didn’t know the amount.

At Piazza’s, before the stores were capping the number of customers who could come inside, one employee likened the noise levels to having a fan constantly whirring in their ear.

“We have a lot more sales than we did before, but if we could go back to where it was before, not putting my employees in harm’s way, I would go back,” owner Rick Piazza said. “It’s been tough on them.”

Customers formed lines down the entire length of Draeger’s Market in Menlo Park on March 16, 2020. (Photo by Magali Gauthier)

Now offering delivery, pickup

The coronavirus has forced independent grocery stores to abruptly adapt their business models, including by offering curbside pickup and home delivery — both labor-intensive changes for small, local businesses.

But demand for delivery is high right now as more people can’t or choose not to leave their homes. Orders placed through grocery delivery app Instacart usually hover at around 3% of overall sales for Sigona’s in Redwood City. Now, they’re accounting for more than 20%. Instacart said in late March that it planned to hire 300,000 additional shoppers over the next three months to meet increased demand and wait times due to the coronavirus.

It was a “controversial” move within the Mutlu family to start offering delivery from The Market at Edgewood two weeks ago. Some members felt like it would only add to their list of mounting responsibilities during the pandemic, Mutlu said, but they ultimately decided to do it, both to respond to customer requests and as a means to minimize the number of people coming to the store. (The store has a $50 minimum for orders, a 15% personal shopping fee and a flat $15 fee for deliveries within a 5-mile radius. Orders can be placed at marketatedgewood.com/delivery.)

Sigona’s also recently started delivering fruit and produce boxes to customers in San Mateo, Foster City, Belmont, San Carlos, Redwood City, Palo Alto, Los Altos, and Mountain View. (People can place orders at sigonashome.com.) The company had for a decade delivered fresh fruit and snacks to local offices, such as tech companies and law firms, which normally accounts for about half of Sigona’s overall business and employs 65 people, including about 20 drivers.

Orders for office deliveries have evaporated during the shutdown, Sigona said. But shifting to home delivery is allowing the company to keep most, though not all, of the distribution staff employed. Some of them have also been moved to provide support at the busy Palo Alto and Redwood City markets.

Sigona’s is also piloting a curbside pickup program, which the owner was reluctant to implement at first. It means setting aside staff time to take orders via email or phone, answer any questions that come up, shop and bring it out to customers.

“We don’t have software set up like Instacart would,” Sigona said.

Customers stop six feet away from each other at markers taped to the ground while they wait in line at Piazza’s Fine Foods in Palo Alto on April 9, 2020. (Photo by Magali Gauthier)

Both owners and workers said the silver lining of the coronavirus is an increased appreciation for the essential service that grocery stores provide. Customers are largely respectful and thankful, they said. One Bianchini’s regular recently gave $5 gift cards to the nearby Konditorei coffee shop to every employee.

“I’m proud of the work we’re doing,” Abarca said. “The general public is taking consideration of the hard work that grocery workers do. Sometimes it’s not seen or taken for granted.”

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Elena Kadvany

A writer with a passion for investigative reporting, telling untold stories and public-service journalism, I have built my career covering education and restaurants in the Bay Area. My blog and biweekly newsletter, Peninsula Foodist, is the go-to source for restaurant news in Silicon Valley. My work has been published in The Guardian, Eater, Bon Appetit’s Healthyish, SF Weekly and The Six Fifty.

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