Grocers struggle to keep up during pandemic

Super One Foods is among the local grocery stores taking measures to help protect customers and employees. They are also seeing a surge in some items being mass purchased.

Eveleth IGA Country Foods co-owner Al Zupancich says of the COVID-19 crisis, "If somebody told me two weeks ago, I would have never believed it, and I don't know what the future will bring." On a positive note he says, "We're plugging along, and we open the door every day and do the best we can."

It's a "can-do" attitude shared by other Iron Range grocers as they face the challenges of the worldwide pandemic. Several area grocers were interviewed by phone.

Zupancich said certain grocery items such as eggs sell fast, partly because people are doing a lot of baking at home, Zupancich said, and partly because suppliers put limits on how much they can deliver. "I ordered 13 cases of eggs and got three," Zupancich said. Flour is a hot commodity also, he said. The warehouse has set quotas of certain items such as toilet paper. "They put a cap" on how much can be ordered, he said.

Zupancich added, "With students being out of school, deli sales are down slightly — we had a big deli business, but we lost all the school kids at noon and the workers" (who may have been laid off).

"The Monday through Friday crowd is good," he said, but "weekends are slow — now people have no place to go. It's just kind of a crazy world."

The store received no skim milk in the last two deliveries of dairy products, he said, as the suppliers were focusing more on 1 percent and 2 percent milk. And the bread companies were delivering fewer items than had been ordered.

The shortages were due to a variety of factors, Zupancich said — "a combination of hoarding, panic buying, overpowering the supply system and producers only producing certain items."

Virginia's Super One South manager Rick Depew said there are "social distancing posters all through the store," reminding shoppers of the need to stay six feet away from other shoppers. Shopping carts are sanitized several times a day, and there are floor decals directing shoppers where to stand. As for the demand for large quantities of toilet paper, Depew said it probably got started through social media such as Facebook.

There has been a shortage of eggs, Depew said, and much demand for disinfectant wipes and hand sanitizer. The week that this all began, he said, the store would be out of certain products already in the morning.

Depew added, "My main thing is to remind people about social distancing, and how important it is not only for themselves but the employees. Everyone to stay safe and keep their distance. That's all we can do."

Virginia's Super One North assistant manager Dan Stupca said, "We keep records of carts being cleaned non-stop, and the tills are being cleaned, every 30 minutes sanitized and disinfected." Every department in the store is involved in the effort to keep the environment safe. There are face masks that employees can choose to wear, Stupca said.

For a time the staple items were in short supply, but the store has been able to replenish the stock. "Warehouses were having a hard time keeping up," Stupca said.

"Signs are posted all over the store about the 6-foot rule." The store closes at 9 p.m., an hour earlier than before, and then the shelves are replenished." And this year Super One North will be closed on Easter Sunday.

Paul's Market & Catering in Eveleth has been "busier than normal," said owner Paul Nemanick. "We're having lots of foot traffic — people who are doing cooking like they used to do. It's been fun."

Nemanick said he has been doing a lot on social media and is helping with Easter plans "for people who can't go out to eat" because restaurants are closed for dine-in service. People are opting for "old-fashioned dinners," ravioli, spaghetti and meatballs. "Pick it up here, or we deliver. Steak, pizza... whatever we have in my store, we'll bring it to you. No charge for delivery."

Nemanick is making pasties every day, and he has customers in Minneapolis who place orders to be shipped.

As for the COVID-19 crisis, he said, "You don't know where it's going to end."

At Hibbing's Cobb Cook Grocery — owned and operated by three Peterlin brothers originally from Eveleth, Bruce, Dan and Randy — Bruce Peterlin said, "We had about two weeks selling all ground beef. It's leveled off as far as the panic buying. People are coming in less and buying more so they don't have to come in as often. Milk sales and egg sales are going well. "I ordered 10 cases of eggs twice a week. Put them out at 8, gone by 9:30." As for the demand for toilet paper, Peterlin said, "We order 8 to 10 cases, only got three. We were getting shorted on ramen noodles, Campbell's soup and macaroni and cheese. Meat has seemed to come around better."

Biwabik's Super One manager Jason Palo said, "Things are going well. Our shelves are full." But the first couple of weeks were a "little bit hectic."

Even though the holidays are past, the store has been selling a great deal of flour and other baking supplies, along with disinfectant wipes, Palo said.

Palo said, "Through all of this the customers have been absolutely fantastic."

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