Empty Shelves, Full Hearts

Denise Muñoz (left) and Ashlee Grider have worked at Star Market for a combined 27 years. Grider’s fondest wish: That when a customer comes in and she says hi to them, they say hi back.

THERE’S A RHYTHM TO THE LIFE OF A GROCERY STORE THAT OCCURS MOSTLY OUT OF THE EYES OF THE PUBLIC. The doors are unlocked at the same time every day, and then just as quickly locked again, as employees arrive and start preparing for customers to appear. When semi-trucks pull up to deliver pallets upon pallets of goods, a team is deployed to cut the wrapping off of the pallets and begin slitting open the boxes, of cans and bottles and containers, to get them into refrigeration quickly or up on the shelves, labels facing out and neatly aligned, please and thanks. There’s cleaning to be done – so much cleaning: wipe the fingerprints off of the glass-fronted refrigerator and freezer cases; sweep, mop and dry the floors; keep the cans and jars looking spiffy with regular dusting; keep the vegetable bins full with neatly trimmed everything, with the mist wafting down to keep everything as fresh as possible for as long as possible.

Then the doors open and the registers come to life. And multiple times a day, the rhythm repeats, with more deliveries, more unboxing and more cleaning to be done, along with taking care of every customer as if they were the most important customer to step inside.

None of this happens without human labor. At larger grocery stores, there might be more than 120 clerks taking care of business. An exact count isn’t possible, but in Monterey County, between the smallest of convenience stores and the largest of warehouse operations, it’s safe to say that close to 10,000 people work in the grocery business.

And most of them kept working throughout the pandemic, the most essential of essential workers but ones who never received the accolades afforded to nurses or cops or firefighters or ambulance drivers.

They don’t expect the accolades. They are perplexed when a reporter shows up asking them to talk about their work during the pandemic. Some are too shy to speak. But with the idea that they are being asked to represent not only themselves and their store, but every such worker who showed up during the pandemic, some are willing.

At Star Market, the talking fell to Denise Muñoz and Ashlee Grider, two of the locally owned grocery store’s 34 clerks. They’re both veterans at this point: Muñoz, who turns 41 next month, has been with the company for 20 years. Grider, at 25, is still working the job she got while she was a Salinas High School student – “my first job,” she says.

In March 2020, as things quickly shut down, shelves quickly emptied of essentials. Because of Star’s position in the supply chain, they weren’t always able to get those essentials back on the shelves quickly.

Muñoz, a mother of two, took three weeks of vacation as the pandemic swelled, and then got back to work. What she came back to was a scene she found pretty unsettling.

“It was an out-of-body type of experience. I just couldn’t believe it was happening. I’d come in and see all the shelves empty and that’s nothing I’d ever seen before,” she says. “The only place I’d seen that before was in the movies.”

Toilet paper was non-existent, and hand sanitizer too. Pickled items – carrots, cukes, etc. – also flew. Muñoz thinks that’s because canning jars themselves were also hard to come by.

And a lot of regular customers were supplanted by strangers, scrambling to get what was on the shelves. If there was a positive to any of it, it was this: “People got the sense that we’re all humans and we’re all in this together.”

Grider, who started as a bagger before working in the produce department and as a cashier, has some of the same recollections as Muñoz: empty shelves, unfamiliar customers and an undercurrent of fear. One woman came in and bought case after case of water, and Grider says, “It was like she was preparing for a hurricane.”

She feels lucky there were no Covid outbreaks among the staff. The same can’t be said for other stores. As things open up, and the mask requirement has fallen away, she says customers seem kinder and are respecting people’s personal space on the line.

“A few weeks ago, a customer paid with a card and got cash back. It was like $10, and she asked for two fives and she gave me one back and said, ‘Give that to the next customer. Put it on their bill,’” Grider says. “But that person said no, give it to someone else who needs it more.”

THERE’S A RHYTHM TO THE LIFE OF A GROCERY STORE THAT OCCURS MOSTLY OUT OF THE EYES OF THE PUBLIC. The doors are unlocked at the same time every day, and then just as quickly locked again, as employees arrive and start preparing for customers to appear. When semi-trucks pull up to deliver pallets upon pallets of goods, a team is deployed to cut the wrapping off of the pallets and begin slitting open the boxes, of cans and bottles and containers, to get them into refrigeration quickly or up on the shelves, labels facing out and neatly aligned, please and thanks. There’s cleaning to be done – so much cleaning: wipe the fingerprints off of the glass-fronted refrigerator and freezer cases; sweep, mop and dry the floors; keep the cans and jars looking spiffy with regular dusting; keep the vegetable bins full with neatly trimmed everything, with the mist wafting down to keep everything as fresh as possible for as long as possible.

Then the doors open and the registers come to life. And multiple times a day, the rhythm repeats, with more deliveries, more unboxing and more cleaning to be done, along with taking care of every customer as if they were the most important customer to step inside.

None of this happens without human labor. At larger grocery stores, there might be more than 120 clerks taking care of business. An exact count isn’t possible, but in Monterey County, between the smallest of convenience stores and the largest of warehouse operations, it’s safe to say that close to 10,000 people work in the grocery business.

And most of them kept working throughout the pandemic, the most essential of essential workers but ones who never received the accolades afforded to nurses or cops or firefighters or ambulance drivers.

They don’t expect the accolades. They are perplexed when a reporter shows up asking them to talk about their work during the pandemic. Some are too shy to speak. But with the idea that they are being asked to represent not only themselves and their store, but every such worker who showed up during the pandemic, some are willing.

At Star Market, the talking fell to Denise Muñoz and Ashlee Grider, two of the locally owned grocery store’s 34 clerks. They’re both veterans at this point: Muñoz, who turns 41 next month, has been with the company for 20 years. Grider, at 25, is still working the job she got while she was a Salinas High School student – “my first job,” she says.

In March 2020, as things quickly shut down, shelves quickly emptied of essentials. Because of Star’s position in the supply chain, they weren’t always able to get those essentials back on the shelves quickly.

Muñoz, a mother of two, took three weeks of vacation as the pandemic swelled, and then got back to work. What she came back to was a scene she found pretty unsettling.

“It was an out-of-body type of experience. I just couldn’t believe it was happening. I’d come in and see all the shelves empty and that’s nothing I’d ever seen before,” she says. “The only place I’d seen that before was in the movies.”

Toilet paper was non-existent, and hand sanitizer too. Pickled items – carrots, cukes, etc. – also flew. Muñoz thinks that’s because canning jars themselves were also hard to come by.

And a lot of regular customers were supplanted by strangers, scrambling to get what was on the shelves. If there was a positive to any of it, it was this: “People got the sense that we’re all humans and we’re all in this together.”

Grider, who started as a bagger before working in the produce department and as a cashier, has some of the same recollections as Muñoz: empty shelves, unfamiliar customers and an undercurrent of fear. One woman came in and bought case after case of water, and Grider says, “It was like she was preparing for a hurricane.”

She feels lucky there were no Covid outbreaks among the staff. The same can’t be said for other stores. As things open up, and the mask requirement has fallen away, she says customers seem kinder and are respecting people’s personal space on the line.

“A few weeks ago, a customer paid with a card and got cash back. It was like $10, and she asked for two fives and she gave me one back and said, ‘Give that to the next customer. Put it on their bill,’” Grider says. “But that person said no, give it to someone else who needs it more.”

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