Business: Groceries On The Front Lines In Pandemic

By: Ed Maroney

A masked John Mulholland checks out items at Chatham Village Market behind a newly-installed sneeze guard. TIM WOOD PHOTO

When you honk your horn Friday nights to honor medical, fire, and police personnel for their dedication, save a toot for the folks at Chatham Village Market and at Friends’ Marketplace in Orleans. They and their colleagues at the local chain supermarkets and convenience stores have become essential workers, by their deeds and by declaration of the governor.

“We’re the only grocery store in the town of Chatham,” Village Market co-owner Scott MacDonald said this week. “A lot of people really need us to be open.”

“All we were hearing was that everyone should stay home,” Friends’ Marketplace co-owner Brian Junkins said Monday, “yet here we are operating a business and asking every employee to be there every day. At the end of the day, we are an essential service… There’s a moral obligation to provide the service we provide. It gives everybody a higher sense of purpose, but it still comes with some anxiety.”

Toward the end of March, Junkins wrote to local political leaders asking for help in securing masks and sanitizing supplies to protect employees. “My cousin is a doctor in Rome and every day he sends me pictures of what life is like there,” he wrote. “All of the images he sends me of grocery stores show cashiers wearing masks.”

State Representative Sarah Peake called back and “hooked us up with the people at Truro Vineyards who were making hand sanitizer,” said Junkins. The Cape Camo clothing company, which has been been turning out lots of masks, brought in 35 the day after they learned of the need. “At this point in time, I feel like our staff is pretty well taken care of,” Junkins said.

Both stores are taking care of staff in other ways. Employees have been given raises.

Protecting employees and customers remains paramount. All day long, Village Market employees—masked and gloved—wipe down surfaces ranging from the front of produce cases to registers and carts. “They can smell the disinfectant and the bleach when they come in,” Junkins said of the effort in his store.

The grocers’ world tilted in early March “when customers started coming in and just wiping everything out in the store,” MacDonald recalled. “Everybody was just buying everything. We were scrambling to find Purell, disinfectants, and masks. Everybody was sold out.”

Co-owner Bob White said the Village Market did get ahead of one hot item, toilet paper. They got a big delivery early on, he said, that “lasted less than a week. People were coming from Brewster and Orleans, filling their carriages. We found out talking to customers that Stop & Shop was always out. We were able to secure a lot of them early on.” So far, the store is keeping up with the demand. “We may not have Northern or Charmin one day,” White said, “but we always did have toilet paper… We got three cases of Charmin Friday. They were gone in 10 minutes.”

In the first week after things got serious, shelf-stable items such as soups, pasta, pasta sauce and canned vegetables “were getting blown out,” White said. “After that, it was frozen vegetables, eggs. Tuna fish took a big hit.” Meat purchases in bulk were steady.

“The hottest item was the Clorox wipes, anything Lysol, all-purpose cleaners,” said White. “That was the hot cake. We didn’t limit anything; that’s why we got cleaned out so quickly.”

Over in Orleans, Junkins realized things were changing when his orders for paper towels and toilet paper started to be shorted. The first couple of times that happened with cleaning materials such as bleach, he held a couple of cases in back, which turned out to be essential for keeping up with the enhanced cleaning regimen.

Early on, he recalled, “just like anywhere else, people started to get nervous. There was a lot of anxiety in the area. They were grabbing volumes of product we had never seen before. We would put an order through to the warehouse and get 40 percent of what we ordered. When that started happening, we started to put some limits on items.” Among the fastest movers were canned soup, tuna fish, paper goods, and “tons of baking products,” Junkins said. “I don’t think we had ever sold out of yeast in 20 years in business… To this day, flour is a hot commodity.”

Some of that demand, White said, may have come from Cape second home owners coming here to shelter in place. “Our baking goods, our flour, is very limited now,” he said. “They started buying shelf-stable milk. They put a lot of thought into it. Scott looks at it as worse than the Blizzard of ‘78; you’re stuck in your house for a month.”

Speaking of winter, White said the Village Market does about 15 home deliveries a week during that season. “Now we’re doing 40 to 50 curbside deliveries a day,” he said, “still working on February help.”

The pandemic moved up the debut of Friends’ Marketplace’s online shopping platform. “We were planning to go live in June,” Junkins said. “In early March, we decided we couldn’t wait. We opened it up March 15… Within a week, there were over 300 orders in the system, booked through April 17. That’s such a massive demand. It might take 45, 50 minutes” to assemble one order. As of April 17, booking will open again, but only up to four days in advance. Friends’ has also been putting together orders for the Wellfleet Council of Aging and now the Orleans COA which the organizations distribute to their clients as needed.

“This is a challenging time,” Junkins said. “Customers and the community have been so positive and so flexible… People are super-understanding and just grateful stores like ours are still open and able to provide a critical service.”

“It’s a tough thing going on here for everybody,” MacDonald said. “The most important thing is to have compassion.”

The popular Orleans Farmers’ Market is poised for a comeback after being shut down by the closure of Nauset Regional Middle School, although some vendors who can accept credit cards have been taking and filling orders. By early May, organizers hope to use the outdoor location on Old Colony Way as a pick-up and delivery point until the market reopens there, perhaps on Memorial Day Weekend. Visit www.orleansfarmersmarket.com/index.html or write to orleansfarmersmarket@gmail.com for more information.