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Local grocery stores contend with virus

IRON RIVER / CRYSTAL FALLS — As the COVID-19 pandemic proceeds, talk abounds about what’s non-essential and what’s essential. Certainly, there are few more essential activities to life than eating.
    And of course, that’s where grocery stores enter the discussion as the country tries to feel its way through the current crisis. Reports of empty shelves, rationed items and panic buying continue to hit the national airwaves and newspapers and the social media sphere.
    But what’s happening locally? Last week, representatives from Angeli Foods, Crystal Fresh Market and Iron River Family Foods communicated with the Reporter about their current situations.
    Like grocery stores across the county, local grocers have had to address virus repercussions like shortages with certain products, supply and demand impact at the distribution level, sanitation procedures and even whether stores are considering not handling cash for the time being (as of now, local grocers are not considring that option).
    First a statement from the Michigan Farm Bureau.
    “Escalated consumer purchases of many basic grocery items - in response to COVID-19, there have been emergency orders temporarily closing Michigan restaurants for dining in - has taxed logistical food supply chain throughout the state.”
    Sometimes this has resulted in empty shelves for certain products. One of the hardest hit has been cleaning supplies - hand sanitizers, sanitizing wipes, bleach, alcohol swaps, peroxide, etc. As people and businesses consume more of these products to follow local, state and federal recommendations for stopping the spread of the virus, the supply at the warehouse level has dissipated. At local stores, shoppers have seen signs that state “temporarily out of stock.”
    “Hand sanitizer is out, rubbing alcohol and cough cold medicines are low or out, hand soap and most household disinfectants are in stock, but low and re-supplies are struggling,” Iron River Family Foods owner Alex Atanasoff said of his store on March 19. “Most surface disinfectants are in stock and supply, but sanitizing wipes are almost out (with a low chance of re-supply,” Atanasoff predicted, except one, which the store had in back-stock.
    “They’re low no matter where you go,” Angeli Foods assistant store director Jeff Ofsdahl said. “Just because the demand is so high for those types of items. Items that customers feel like they’re going to need at the house especially if they’re not going to be able to go out. So, we’ve just worked with our suppliers, our warehouses, on whatever we can get and going from there.”
    The stores themselves have increased their sanitizing efforts in response to recommendations from the Michigan Department of Agriculture and the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services.
    “We already had a very stringent cleaning regimen, but we did ramp it up,” said Angeli Foods Controller/HR Director Stacy Gasperich on March 19. “We have people going around the store multiple times during the day wiping down all handles, carts. Any high-touch areas are getting wiped down multiple times.”
    “We have weekly cleaning of the departments, certain sections, it takes a full week to get it done and then they restart it again,” said Angeli Foods store director Joe Sanfilippo. “We’ve increased that procedure as well. I mean, we’ve gone to even greater extents of washing down all the walls and sanitizing everything. So, we’re on a very strict cleaning. You have to be in this business and what we did was just stepped it up.”
    One of the earliest measures Angeli Foods enforced to proactively keep customers and employees safe was the suspension of its self-serve food items like the salad bar, the olive bar and the soup bar.
    Other items that have seen a rush of demand include paper plates, plastic utensils, some perishable items like milk and eggs and at times produce like potatoes and onions.
    “Anything that grandma and grandpa used to put in the cellar” Ofsdahl said. ‘That’s what’s moving. If you can keep it for a long time, that’s the kind of panic buying that you’re talking about.”
    “Namely we ask the public to not panic, we will do our best to continue to stock our stores to the best of our ability,” said Crystal Fresh View store director Zach Stuck on March 18. “We here have already explored handling non-standard or atypical selections in order to keep our communities nourished.
    “We appreciate the opportunity to feed our community and will continue to do everything we can to get food in stores and keep stock. In coming weeks, we may see shortages, restrictions, and allocations. We will do our best to sidestep these, but eventually they will affect what is on the shelves.”
    The grocers also spoke of the balance between stocking to be prepared and “panic buying” i.e. the demand rush for toilet paper for example.
    The Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development has advised people to be prepared but not panic.
    “Flooding the grocery and convenience stores doesn’t allow them to property restock items customers are looking to buy,” the MDARD said in a new release. “While the supply is intact, and the food items are available, giving grocery stores times to replenish inventory is critical to ensure that everyone has access to what they need at the store,”
    “Grocers are working really hard to keep the stores clean and shelves stocked,” said Michigan Retails Association’s Meegan Holland. “I am told a family of four can get by with 17 rolls of toilet paper in a couple of weeks. Just buy what you need and there will be enough for everyone.”
    Michigan Farm Bureau president Carl Bednarski said that dramatic shift in consumer food-purchasing habits and consumption has caused a temporary price increase at the retail level for certain household grocery staples, including eggs, dairy and meets in some stores.
    He said expects that in the long term, the price pendulum to swing in the opposite direction, at least at the farm-level.
    Specific to Family Foods, Atanasoff said on March 19 that produce and milk suppliers were at 100 percent fulfillment at the moment, but “we may see some foreign-sourced and specialty items struggle as suppliers focus on meeting demand for the main staples.
    “Meat, bread, and eggs shipments are moderately to severely reduced at the moment and we will have to limit these items, but the word I’m hearing is supply is rising with certain unique goods unavailable as producers focus on maximum production volume of staple items.
    We have a good amount of paper products and home goods in stock and in supply with certain popular brands or items not available.”
    Gasperich said she was told in a webinar with the Food Marketing Institute that there are no food shortages now. She said warehouses and suppliers have experienced “some bottle necks about getting things through.”
    “So, we ask people to be mindful because we’re trying to be able to serve as many people in the community as we can. You know, there’s always items, when we do our one-day sales or our Monday’s where we limit to two because they’re a good buy, so you might be seeing those. But that’s basically because we want as many people to be served as possible.”
    Sanfilippo added that a rush in urban areas hit hard too.
    “The thing is when you get cities like Chicago and Milwaukee, everything got sucked up so fast, that was what put the cringe on it at first. But right not, there’s nothing that projected to be shorted.”
    That seems to be a common refrain throughout the state as Michigan Restaurant and Lodging Association vice president John McNamara said in a press release.
    “You can still get your favorite foods, just in a different way than before as we work together to reduce the spread (of the virus). I urge you to continue to support your area businesses, who are often the foundation of our local communities, by buying gift certificates for later use and getting take-out or delivery.”
    At the warehouse level, increased demand has added some stress. Sanfilippo said Angeli Foods added an additional full truck last week from its warehouse and supplier, SuperValu of Green Bay.
    “And we were in the process of trying to keep that going, but warehouses can’t take anymore. We’re in daily communication with them and their biggest problem is not such much that there is a shortage of anything, but it’s being able to get (goods) through their systems.”
    Sanfilippo gave the example of bread on the shelves.
    “Yesterday morning (March 18), maybe at 7 or 8 o’clock, normally our bread is full, ready to go. But these bakeries at four, five, six hours behind so I’m getting my bread at 11 o’clock in the morning. And then they’re not bringing me 200 loaves, they’re bringing me maybe 150.”
    As the country attempts to find its way through the pandemic, local grocers reflected on the unique circumstances the pandemic has brought.
    “Obviously, I don’t think anybody has seen anything to this extent,” Sanfilippo said. “But I think that if we, as a community and as a workforce, if we just listen to what we’re being told to do.... “But we’re going to get through this and we’re going to get through the other side. And the more we cooperate with things that we’re being asked to do, the sooner it’s going to happen.”
    “We have a resilient community, and if we all do our part - not be greedy - and treat our fellow Yoopers as family we will all persevere.” Stuck said.