Epidemic Essentials: Grocery Stores

by Kerry Hoffschneider

One of the employees of Grand Central Foods went into the owner’s office at the grocery store and said, “We have six cases of eggs left.  That’s all and they are all on the shelf.  We will probably be out of milk soon, too.”

Warren Thomas, owner, Grand Central Foods.  Kerry Hoffschneider photo.

Grand Central Foods owner Warren Thomas replied with a calm, direct answer.  Thomas has been in the business long enough to know how to navigate supply chains and people too, but he also admitted when it comes to the impact of COVID-19 he has never seen “anything like this.”

Grand Central Foods has a long history in York, Nebraska – a community of about 7,800 people surrounded by farms mostly selling commodity crops like corn and soybeans to consolidated cooperatives and ethanol plants.  There is also some livestock production in the region spotted with rural towns surrounding York, the county seat.  Many of the surrounding smaller towns do not have a grocery store of their own, or the gas station serves as the only source of food other than a bar or restaurant.

Thomas started in the grocery business in 1980 when his father-in-law, Clarence Kaslon, owned and operated the store.  Kaslon was there more than 50 years before he retired.  There were only two other owners prior, the original was Bob Weary and later his son-in-law, Jim Specht.  Thomas said the grocery store is approaching its 80th year in business.

“The situation we are in right now with the Coronavirus is mainly about panic and people fearing to be quarantined, so they are stocking their supplies,” he said, noting some are stocking to extreme levels.  “So, we have had to put limits on quantities of some items.”

Items like the now-infamous toilet paper.  Thomas walked over to empty shelves with small yellow signs, limiting one toilet paper package purchase per customer.  On a middle shelf was an option for worried buyers that found a bit of humor in a serious situation.  Thomas said a gal from a nearby small town put some corn cobs in bundles.

“We’re selling them for $5.99 a bundle,” he said.  “If I get any money, all the proceeds will go to the lady who put this together.  It’s all about the laughter.”

The dry-humored Thomas seems able to balance a good deal of smiles, but also respect and authority in his role.  He noted that everyone along the supply chain is feeling the short-term squeeze on product availability caused by anxious and preparing consumers.

“If we get a load in like we did Friday, out of the 200 items that we ordered, we got maybe ten.  The main problem is that our suppliers can’t keep up,” Thomas explained.  “This goes clear back to the manufacturer, then to the warehouse, and then to us.  They also do not have enough truck drivers and enough help to load the trucks to get them ready for shipment.  That forces the warehouse to allocate.”

The store regularly receives shipments twice a week.  These shipments include products like meat, produce, and dairy.

“Right now, if we order a full truck, we are only getting a half truck because it is allocated.  For example, if we order 20 cases of eggs, we might get 15.  I just checked with the meat manager and he did not get what he had ordered for Friday’s truck and we worry about the weekend because it’s running out.  We were able to outsource from another warehouse that usually supplies restaurants.  That is why there should be a truckload from Sysco coming soon.  They are looking to relieve their supply before spoilage occurs,” Thomas said.

He said their store primarily works with one warehouse supplier – AWG (Associated Wholesale Grocers) out of Norfolk, Nebraska that is located two hours away from York.

“We are totally dependent on our supplier.  We used to work with Fleming out of Lincoln, Nebraska and they went bankrupt.  Then, we we went to Affiliated Foods out of Norfolk and they were bought out by AWG in Kansas City.  We were recently contacted by Affiliated Foods out of Lubbock, Texas and they want to drive this far to deliver groceries too,” Thomas said.

When it comes to workforce at the store, while other businesses are trying to do more with less, Thomas is adding people to shifts to help serve customers even better.

“We are really conscious about service.  Our number one competition is the world’s largest retailer and so we emphasize customer service above everything else and we don’t raise our prices to do so,” he said.

Preston Plock delivers curbside grocery pick up. Kerry Hoffschneider photo.

“We also just picked up another van from Ford Motor Company to expand our home deliveries to every day of the week, a change from what we were already doing.  We’ll do carryout directly next to the store or put groceries on their front steps, whatever it takes.”

Serving in a hyper-sanitary fashion has also been critical.

“We are very vulnerable in the food business and want to make sure we are keeping everything clean.  I am not a micromanager, but at our manager meeting, I am emphasizing that each of them be in charge of sanitizing their department.  Wiping down carts and all surfaces more often is more important now.  We stay open until midnight and are fairly quiet after 10 p.m., so this gives us extra time to make sure everything is clean.”

Thomas offered sympathy for restaurants and bars enduring the pandemic with drive through or delivery options only.  While his business is booming right now, it is only a matter of time until grocery stores see a drop in purchasing.

“At some point in time it is going to drop down lower, and even lower than usual, because of supply and demand.  People will still need perishables, but their dry goods will be stocked up,” Thomas said.

“As people, we need to be true to what is asked of us.  Stay home as much as we can, self-quarantine if you get sick, and let’s get this pandemic under control.  I joke with our regular coffee drinkers that if they get to be a group of even one over 10, they are done,” Thomas said, keeping a light, but serious tone.  “We need to remember, we’re all together in this.”


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