Food retailers continue on amidst Covid-19 health risks

By CHARLOTTE CRUTCHLOW

BENJY RENTON
The Middlebury Foods Co-op on Washington Street is one of a handful of Middlebury food retailers that has continued to keep its doors open during the State-wide outbreak of Covid-19. Many area supermarkets have serviced customers in equal or higher-quantities than normal in the last month.

Among the handful of food retailers located in Middlebury, Hannaford Supermarket has run into its share of unexpected struggles and setbacks caused by Vermont’s outbreak of Covid-19. 

“If you were to tell me three weeks ago that I would be operating my business the way I am today, I would have laughed,” Middlebury Hannaford Store Manager Tom Seigle said. 

Seigle said the store has faced historic sales increases of 60–90% compared to the same weeks last year, and is currently processing an average of 2,000 customers per day. According to Seigle, customers are mainly interested in items with long shelf lives: dried beans, canned meats, frozen veggies, cleaning supplies, toilet paper, paper towels and first aid supplies. These items have been in highest demand and are reportedly the most difficult to keep in stock.

Seigle noted that while the doomsday-type prepping has come to a halt, customers continue to purchase more groceries than usual because restaurants are closed and children who normally attend school are home. 

To maintain control over its products, the store has limited certain food categories to two items per customer and added additional deliveries to its calendar. For safety reasons, it has opted to discontinue all self-serve options such as sliced deli meats, the salad bar, fresh seafood and all bulk foods. Hannaford has also asked its customers to shop individually, even as employees continue to see entire families and groups of friends entering at once to do their shops.

Seigle reported that many salaried associates have worked nonstop for three weeks in a row — without a day off. Part-time employees are working 40-plus hours a week, with most accepting overtime shifts. However, facing Covid-19 realities, many have also cut back hours or removed themselves from work entirely. Hannaford temporarily paused its attendance policy to make it optional for staff to attend work shifts.

“Many of our at-risk employees have taken themselves out of work, and many parents have also taken themselves out of work because their children are out of school,” Seigle said. 

In response to the many community members rendered unemployed due to the Covid-19 outbreak, Hannaford has been hiring temporary staff members. “Applicants are not exactly lining up at the door, though, because of the known exposure of grocery store workers,” Seigle said.

Seigle also expressed extreme gratitude for his team. “We face a panicked public everyday and this has been stressful on my team, but they still stand beside me,” he said. “Customers shopping in masks and gloves, gas masks and respirators is something we have never dealt with. Each one of my associates is a hero and they battle an invisible enemy each and every day. I can’t thank them enough.”

The Middlebury Natural Foods ​Co-op​ on Washington Street has experienced customer behavior that mirrors that at Hannaford. Karin Mott, the Co-op’s marketing, education and membership manager, noted an increased desire among customers for shelf-stable products that have generated supply deficits. Like Hannaford, the Co-op is taking a day-by-day approach and planning as far in advance as possible to avoid future complications.

Employees are also working to prevent spread of the virus through increased sanitation measures. “We’ve done a lot around the store in terms of sanitation, going above and beyond regular cleaning,” Mott said. “All people, including customers, are required to wear gloves. Also, we’ve suspended the use of containers and bags from home and instead use single-use bags and boxes.”

Each one of my associates is a hero and they battle an invisible enemy each and every day. I can’t thank them enough.”

— Tom Seigle, Hannaford store manager

Teresa Edington, external communication and community relations manager at ​Shaw’s supermarket in Middlebury, explained that the store has faced similar challenges. “As we all continue to navigate through this public health crisis together, Shaw’s and Star Market are continuing to do everything we can to prioritize the health and safety of our customers, our communities and our associates, and to ensure our customers have access to the food, medications and other essential goods they need at this critical time,” she said.

The location has added certain precautionary measures to its storefront to prevent the spread of disease, including the installation of plexiglass, the implementation of CDC Cleanliness Guidelines and the usage of social distancing practices in all departments. “We are constantly looking for solutions to help us improve this practice in our stores,” Edington said. “We thank our customers for their patience and understanding during this critical time.”

Hannaford, the Natural Foods Co-op and Shaw’s will all remain open seven days a week, each reserving certain morning hours for the elderly and other high-risk community members. At Hannaford, these special hours take place on Tuesday and Thursday from 6:00 a.m. to 7:00 a.m.; at the Co-op, they will take place during the first hour of each day; at Shaw’s, they are held on Tuesday and Thursday from 7:00 a.m. to 9:00 a.m. 

Click here for the status of other food industry businesses in Middlebury.