New Orleans Grocers Rise to the Challenge of COVID-19
NEW ORLEANS – In 2005, during Hurricane Katrina, all six Robért Fresh Market grocery stores were destroyed by a combination of flood water, wind and rain. Nobody knew how or if things would return to normal.
The current COVID-19 crisis is affecting the grocery business in very different ways but the sense of uncertainty is a familiar one.
One big difference between Katrina and COVID? Instead of flood waters, this time all grocery stores have been inundated with a flood of customers.
“It started the Friday before last, the day they announced that schools would be out,” said Marc Robért III, the stores’ general manager. “That day started the really aggressive sales. People had a sense of fear and unknown and then for the next five days after that was when we really saw the extreme high volume in store. That’s when all of the paper products, sanitizers and disinfectants sold out, and we have been working to restock since.”
Robért said that by the end of last week, sales started to level out and his team has had a chance to catch up and restock. During those first five days, sales were more than double their normal volume but now things are close to average for the time of year. He thinks many customers stocked up heavily at first and now are just rounding out what they need around the house. People are also ordering online for a lot of their needs.
Robért said despite the efforts of his suppliers (Associated Grocers and United Natural Foods among others), some items remain hard to get. The list includes sanitizer, disinfectant and some paper products.
“The unconfirmed rumor is that the sanitizer we had on order is going to be diverted for use at healthcare facilities and hospitals which means I have no idea when to expect we’ll have it in,” he said. “I expect to see stuff like wipes back in sooner but the date is still unknown and I’m currently out of stock.”
Robért said that he’s well stocked on most paper products and basic commodity items like milk, eggs and bread – which were hard to come by a few days ago. Getting toilet paper, though, requires extra work.
“We partnered with some local suppliers,” he said. “A&L Sales is a big one who typically sells us chemical products. They have been sourcing Charmin bath tissue for us and delivering to our stores. Day to day, we have stock and then we’ll run out and then we get it back. Right now we have paper towels everywhere but are currently out of bath tissue at several of our stores. By the end of the day today I expect to have some.”
Sandwich bread from brands like Bunny and Nature’s Own have also been hard to come by so Robert partnered with local baker La Louisiane, which ordinarily supplies restaurants and the convention center, to get bread on the shelves.
“They’ve been working overnight producing 500 loaves for us each day and we’re selling through it,” he said. “It’s helping them and also bringing bread to our neighborhoods so that’s been a good story. And the bread’s absolutely delicious as well.”
A few other items have become more expensive to buy wholesale but Robert said he’s been absorbing a lot of those costs. Eggs are about 75 cents more per dozen for him to buy. Beef prices have gone up because of high demand. And bottled water is either impossible to find or pricier. Robert said his price for a 24-pack of private label bottled water has gone up from about $3 to $5.
The biggest priority for all grocery stores during the COVID-19 pandemic, of course, is employee and customer safety. Robért provides gloves and hand sanitizer for customers. Employees also must wear gloves and are cleaning and disinfecting around the clock.
“I can’t get any hand sanitizer to sell but Caire Hotel & Restaurant Supply sells me these gallon jugs of it,” he said. “I purchased clear plastic condiment bottles and we fill them with hand sanitizer and have them available at the front of all of our stores.
“Every night we’re doing a deep clean with our floor machine to make sure the floors are absolutely clean because that’s another thing I’ve been reading about: the virus will hold to the floor and travel on shoes. So we’re really making a big deal about making our floors being super clean every night.”
The efforts represent a shift in priorities during the pandemic.
“In the past, I’ve always said customer service and cleanliness are our top priorities but right now the number one priority is sanitation,” said Robért. “After that we’re working on serving our customers through best possible stock levels and everything else follows.
“There’s no doubt that the grocery industry has been blessed in this crisis situation to have sales available to us and to have jobs available for our people. But it’s also a very difficult time for all of us to witness with close friends and family going through this. Our role is to serve the community, hire people who need jobs, try to get products from local restaurants into our stores … and pray for a quick end to this.”