The quaint neighborhood grocery store in the Winter Hill neighborhood of Somerville has risen to the challenge of feeding its community during the coronavirus pandemic. Friedman’s Andrew May documents his experience working for the store and the owner’s response to the crisis.
Response to the pandemic was incremental. First came social distancing in the check-out line, which was difficult given the small size of the store. Next, limiting the number of customers allowed in the store at one time, starting with eight, then six, then two. Eventually one person at a time waiting at the front door and calling off groceries from their list for staff to collect became the standard. The latest response is the implementation of online ordering and pick-ups, with delivery options for special circumstances. This was a tough decision to make for the owners, as it seemed to work against the store’s philosophy of community building.
“We opened this store as a source of healthy and affordable food to our community, to those who only have cash or may not have internet access,” said Neighborhood Produce owner Matt Gray. “And starting an online platform felt counter to that sense of community, where people can come get a few items whenever they need them.”
But as the severity of the pandemic grew, it became clear that online ordering would be the best option for continuing the store’s mission to provide healthy affordable food access to the neighborhood. Combined with “personal shopping,” the online platform has quickly grown to more than 100 orders per day. This has forced Neighborhood Produce to adapt the system to the store’s small size, limiting which days of the week orders can be placed, and increasing the turn-around time on ordering from “later that day” to 48 hours.
The online store has also allowed customers to buy in greater quantities. The physical limitations of the store would normally not allow customers to use more than one basket at a time to shop, which has now quadrupled to the average order filling four baskets. The changes have allowed for an increase in overall business to a staggering degree, with the store now “somewhere between doubling and tripling what we were doing pre-COVID-19”, according to Matt, adding “some days the amount of sales in a single day, we used to do in a week.”
As owner Heather Gray put it, “We are essentially running two stores, a walk-up store on Medford Street and an online ordering and pick-up service out of the side door on Sycamore Street. As the pandemic has become more serious and people are more restricted to their homes, it has become clear this is an essential business that we have to provide.”
Aside from a few hiccups that come naturally with a learning curve, the store has been operating smoothly during this transition. Services continue for the long-term customer base of the neighborhood, while also welcoming an influx of new customers every week that have chosen to avoid the long lines and risks associated with larger grocery stores. Customers new and old never miss an opportunity to express their thanks and appreciation to the Neighborhood Produce staff, knowing the risks associated with being front-line workers.
One customer expressed their thanks by writing, “I wanted to share how much I appreciate how you and the team have been showing up to support the community and keep us fed. You provide such a wonderful resource, so THANK YOU for everything!”
Although the pandemic has shifted employment trends across the nation, Neighborhood Produce has hired additional staff to help with the ever-increasing workload. One of those new hires, I began in mid-March during the onset of global responses to COVID-19 as the needs of the store became clearer. Like everyone else on the staff, I have felt a sense of pride working for a grocery store during the pandemic and feel grateful every day that I still have a job and a safe store in which to shop. In contrast to the terrifying stories coming out of larger grocery chains across the country lately, I feel extremely safe, well-protected, and cared for in terms of health and safety by the ownership at Neighborhood Produce. This feeling of safety in an otherwise concerning climate seems to be passed on to the customers as well.
As one customer posted on social media, “My household is high-risk, and it has been so helpful to be able to access affordable groceries without going inside stores.” Similarly, another customer said, “It’s great to not have unknowingly endangered anyone else in the community by shopping at your store.”
When asked how it felt to be thrust into this situation so quickly, Matt was quick to express his love for his work and his community. “Some days it feels like you are trying to fight a fire and no matter what you do the fire gets bigger. It definitely feels like it’s an emergency situation. But in a good way, because you’re feeding a community. It’s rewarding to provide an essential service in a historic time like this, feeding the neighborhood and keeping people out of big stores. Knowing that keeps me going forward, that what we’re doing is essential and people in the community need us.”
While the end of this pandemic is shrouded in uncertainty, one thing is clear: residents of Winter Hill and Somerville have a dependable, honest, and trustworthy source of healthy and local food to see them through.
Andrew May is a first-year AFE student. His interests include local and community food system development, school food issues, and food policy councils. During the pandemic, you can find him taking long walks in Winter Hill, failing at baking sourdough, or trying to convince his cat that it is essential for him to be home so often. Contact Andrew at Andrew.firstname.lastname@example.org