In Suk Pak, left, the manager of BestWorld Supermarket in Mt. Pleasant, helps a shopper check out.
While many small business owners across the D.C. region are seeing their profits flatline, the owners of small food markets and grocery store chains are experiencing a boom in business.
"We're trying to feed the world, and everyone else is trying to figure out how to survive," says Scott Nash, the owner of the Mom's Organic Market grocery stores that dot the Washington region.
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Business has doubled at all Mom's locations over the past five days. Nash says the increase is due to restaurants in D.C., Maryland, and other states shutting down to slow the spread of coronavirus, and chain grocery stores' struggles with empty shelves and massive lines.
Keeping Shelves Stocked
Smaller chains like Mom's can be more nimble, Nash believes. As customer demand increases, he has been able to call up his suppliers — "my meat guys, my chicken guys, my produce guys" — to arrange extra deliveries and keep his shelves relatively full. He's also started texting his larger suppliers, urging them to put ads on Craigslist for temporary truck drivers and pallet stackers, so they can deliver more products.
Best World Supermarket in Mt. Pleasant is experiencing a similar boom. Owner In Suk Pak says his largely Latino clientele has been stocking up on Maseca (a brand of corn flour) water, rice, and sanitary products. And a few blocks down, staff at Each Peach Market say they've been selling staples (milk, eggs and bread) and pre-made foods (soups and dips) as soon as they shelve them.
But because Each Peach partners with individual farmers rather than larger suppliers, it can't order more product at the drop of a hat. "We're calling up, like, Tim, the guy who brings us our eggs and saying to him, 'can you bring us twice as many eggs as you normally do?'" says Eleanor Gease, the store's general manager.
Tim, a farmer in central Pennsylvania, can't ramp up his delivery schedule even if he has the eggs supply available.
Staples like milk have been hard to come by at Each Peach Market in Mt. Pleasant.
For many local grocers, the biggest shortage is labor, not product.
"Staff are exhibiting signs of stress," says Eleanor Gease, Each Peach's general manager. "They're interacting with hundreds of people a day."
At Mom's, Nash has increased overtime pay to incentivize employees to work more hours. He's also been trying to hire temporary workers. "Every store could use 15 more employees today," he says. He's hoping to be able to hire restaurant workers who don't have shifts to take now that restaurants and bars have been shut down.
A few blocks away from Each Peach, employees at El Progreso Market were too busy to find the manager for an interview. Lines to check out stretched down the already-tight aisles to the deli section in the back, where a butcher was hurriedly wrapping meat for customers.
Customers fill the aisles at El Progreso Market in Mt. Pleasant.
"Manager? I don't know, I'm just trying to deliver bread," one frazzled man said as he stacked loaves of white bread onto a shelf.
At Best World, Pak has had to turn away from his managerial duties in order to help stock shelves. He's also become the store's tech guy, figuring out how to fix glitches in the checkout machine software because he doesn't have time to call for support. Meanwhile, his wife is jumping on a cash register to help with the growing lines between a failed bank run (the bank was closed) and a product delivery.
Pak isn't too worried about running out of steam. He sees this as a short-term situation rather than a boom that will change his small business forever.
"It's busy," he says, "but someday it's going to slow down. Busy means nothing to us."
Does Smaller Feel Safer?
Leaders of the nation's large grocery store chains say they are stocking up to meet demand and are increasing their sanitization practices to keep people safe. Still, worries over being in the vicinity of hundreds of other shoppers had led some customers to return to their community stores where the crowds are smaller.
"I heard from a customer, 'I don't want to go to Safeway,'" said Jeanlouise Conaway, the owner of Each Peach. She says their loyal local customers trust her staff to prioritize health and safety over profits.
Due to the small size of her business, Conaway has been able to institute new practices like curbside grocery pickup and limiting the number of shoppers inside to eight at a time.
Nash says he's doing his best to keep his Mom's stores clean, but acknowledges that there's a limit to how much he can control. "All you can do is, don't touch your face and wash your hands and stay a few feet from everybody. You can sanitize all you want..." He trails off.
"We really ought to be grateful as hell that we're in this industry" he picks back up after a beat. "Our problems are good problems. Our jobs aren't threatened, at least not yet."