When we look back on this time, and remember who was a hero and who was a fool, we might look back on some of the videos, shake our heads and wonder, “What were those people thinking?” You know those videos and you know those people: The ones of customers behaving badly in grocery stores, berating service workers because there aren’t any Clorox wipes on the shelves, coughing purposefully in their faces, refusing to wear masks because it’s “their body, their choice” and demanding their constitutional right to cheap toilet paper.
If anyone was inclined to behave in any of those aforementioned ways at a Monterey County grocery store, they best not do it at Star Market. The independently owned, South Salinas store has a loyal customer base, but the management team would likely be fierce if anyone behaved badly toward the workers there.
So far, says Managing Partner and Wine & Liquor Department Director Victor Kong, customers behaving badly hasn’t been an issue, although the supply chain has been difficult to navigate. He and Managing Partner/Grocery Manager Mark Rollins spoke to the Weekly about the ins-and-outs of being an indy grocer in a pandemic, with Managing Partner/Frozen Foods-Dairy Department Manager Cris Reyes, also chiming in.
Weekly: When the pandemic was ramping up and the shelter-in-place order was going into effect, what was the atmosphere like here and what did you think? I remember being stunned at how entire aisles were empty.
Kong: We didn’t know what to think. Everybody had this look on their face – they wanted food and they wanted to get in and get out. We were just trying to make sure the shelves were full and satisfied people’s buying habits.
Rollins: We’re still having issues getting stuff. The supply chain is still having issues and it shows that if one moving part gets disrupted, it throws the whole thing off. In regular times, it shows how fine-tuned it is – you order, it shows up. But when one thing goes out of whack? It fell apart there for a while. It shows how many people are involved in the process. And we took it for granted.
What are you most proud of in how the store has functioned in the past 10 weeks?
Kong: Number one, it’s the staff. When this started, Mark put up a sheet in the office [about who would be willing to work during the pandemic] and 90 percent of the staff said, “Count me in, you need my help and I’m ready to go to work.”
Rollins: The grocery business has always been a game of priorities. You never get everything done – it’s, what’s the priority right now? When things went ballistic, we were only going to work on high-priority items and when you have customers staring at you, that’s the priority. The staff was all willing to show up and get to work.
How have customer interactions been? Any horror stories?
Kong: We haven’t really had a lot of belligerent people. They’re pretty well behaved and they know our situation. They know they’re required to wear masks and they follow the rules.
What’s selling now?
Rollins: Rice, beans and cleaning products, and they’re still having issues. Being a smaller company and using smaller companies as suppliers, there are some strings that can be pulled. We can say, we need help, and the supplier will say, here’s what we have. Specifically with toilet paper, we might not have the usual Charmin or Quilted Northern on the shelves right now – we have single rolls – but I think that calmed people down, knowing we have something.
Kong: Alcohol sales have been brisk, above normal. Rather than buying a 750ml bottle, they have been buying 1.75ml jugs of spirits. Wine sales, rather than buying two or three bottles, there’s an option to buy a six-pack and you get 10-percent off. And it’s across the board, from gin drinkers to vodka drinkers to whisky drinkers.
When things go back to the new normal, what do you think the business will be like?
Cris Reyes: Online sales will be more than they’ve been in the past. More people have tried it during the pandemic and they’ve liked it.
Kong: I still have people commenting that they miss coming to the grocery store because they like to pick out their own stuff and they like the interaction. They get inspired by seeing products.