BY KAREN GERHARDINGER | MIRROR REPORTER — As soon as Gov. Mike DeWine issued a “stay at home” order, the parking lots of area grocery stores began filling up – again.
Since March 12, when the governor announced schools would close, area grocers have been in overdrive. With subsequent announcements about the closures of restaurant dining rooms, bars and nonessential businesses, stores have been flooded with customers seeking meat, produce, dairy, cleaning products, beer, wine and toilet paper.
“I’ve been doing this for 55 years and I’ve never seen it like this,” said Bob Sautter of Sautter’s Food Center. “I’ve never seen such a panic.”
Ground beef, breads, toilet paper and canned soups have been quick to sell at Sautter’s, where employees are working overtime to stock shelves. Within an hour, two pallets of toilet paper were cleared out.
Kunal Dawar, vice president of operations for Walt Churchill’s Markets, said both the number of customers and the volume of products each person is buying have increased.
“Our trucks are usually bringing in 600 to 700 cases per delivery. Now, they’re bringing in about 2,000 cases per delivery,” Dawar said.
As certain items – such as ground beef, canned soups, breads, cleaning products, bottled water and toilet paper – come into the store, they are just as quickly sold. With high-demand items, many grocers have asked customers to limit quantities, but Sautter acknowledges that some people might be shopping for elderly or at-risk neighbors or relatives.
The reason for some items running out is that the warehouses weren’t ready for the sudden increase in demand, both Dawar and Sautter explained
“It takes a while for the chain to get filled up. It’s like a garden hose…when you turn on the water, it takes a while for it to reach the end of the hose,” Sautter said.
Dawar expects orders and deliveries to catch up this week.
“We expect it to improve,” he said. “The warehouse has a lot of trucks coming in. There’s no need to hoard and buy a lot. Things will get better.”
The closure of bars and restaurants to all but carryout orders has increased the supply of meat available to grocery stores, Dawar added. Those suppliers need to sell their product to someone, and the demand is there. Without bars open or restaurants serving alcohol, the sale of beer and wine has also been on the rise.
“Whenever people are going to be home, we sell a lot of beer and wine,” Sautter said, referring to holidays and predicted snowstorms.
Monnette’s Market has seen record numbers of customers buying all types of fresh produce, meaning owner Marc Monnette had to scramble to find new suppliers as regulars ran low. On a normal weekend, he would sell 15 to 20 cases of potatoes. On the weekend of March 14-15, he sold 150 cases.
“Never in my life have I seen a panic like the one that started on March 12. We had record numbers that weekend,” he said.
The bottom line for grocery stores is that they’re experiencing unprecedented sales, Monnette said, but it’s also presented challenges in keeping up with demand, following ever-changing rules from the governor and conducting business in a safe manner.
“I’m revamping our revamping,” Monnette said. He’s added 3 extra feet of counter space to provide 6 feet between cashiers and customers, expanded the deli counters and eliminated food samples and soups, and designated one person to constantly disinfect carts and counters.
“Cleaning has been extensive. We’ve been in contact with Dupont because it’s difficult to find cleaning materials that are food-grade safe and 99.99-percent effective on all viruses,” Monnette said. “We want to make sure it’s safe and that no one gets infected – either a customer or employee – because of a lack of me doing my job.”
Several area stores have altered their hours to give staff extra time to clean and stock when customers are not present. That’s the best time to sanitize hard surfaces, like doors, handles, restrooms and fixtures. Those early hours, before crowds have entered, are also the best time for older and immunocompromised customers to shop.
“We have an ‘all hands on deck’ policy. We’re all working extra to keep our shelves full, but we want to make sure that our employees are not working so hard that they fall sick,” said Dawar of the 220 employees who work part and full time at two Churchill’s locations.
Sautter praised his employees for working diligently to meet customer needs and keep the place clean.
“My meat manager and assistant manager went way beyond. I didn’t have to ask. They just did it. The produce manager came in on his day off,” Sautter said.
Every area grocer is hiring, and Sautter has received applications from laid-off restaurant employees and college students who are suddenly facing a long break.
“After four days at home, I decided I’d better get a job,” said Miami University student Mikah Pransky, who joined her twin brother Rogan in working at Sautter’s.
Kroger corporate affairs manager Amy McCormick said the chain has immediate positions open in the retail stores, manufacturing plants and distribution centers. The Waterville Kroger hosted a job fair, and applicants can apply online.
While Monnette had a few employees take leave because of concerns about exposure to the coronavirus, searching for new staff members hasn’t been at the top of his list – because he doesn’t have time to put someone through the two weeks’ training. Those who do stay are getting paid overtime, and rightfully so, he said.
Even though stories of greedy customers taking too many packages of toilet paper or loaves of bread abound, most local grocers are noticing a spirit of community among their employees and customers.
Many are shopping for elderly or those with compromised health. Others wave and stop for conversation at a safe distance.
Bernie Welniak was shopping at Churchill’s and asked a clerk for toilet paper. As she led him toward an empty shelf, the off-duty employee asked if he was completely out.
“I told her I still had some left. She had a package behind the counter to take home but would have gladly shared some with me if I had been out,” he said.
At the Sautter’s Sylvania store, one customer handed Bob’s brother, Jim Sautter, $1,000 and told him to use it to pay for groceries for anyone who has lost a job.
“This is an example of people pulling together,” Bob Sautter said.
Kroger’s Zero Hunger/ Zero Waste Foundation made a $3 million commitment to its nonprofit partners Feeding America and No Kid Hungry. The funding will support local food banks and initiatives that ensure children still have access to nutritious meals. Kroger also provided $25.00 to each employee for their own use.
Waterville Kroger employee Kathy Bethel put that $25.00 toward assembling goodie bags to give to anyone who is homebound and in need. With donations from a few other friends, she created gift bags of toilet paper, hand sanitizer, puzzles and other items.