Carlos Perez, a buyer at the Gristedes supermarket chain, typically sources his grocery and body products within a 100-mile radius of New York City. But when the coronavirus outbreak took hold in March, a panic set in among shoppers — and he had to find items wherever he could across America.
“There was no way to keep up with the demand,” said the 55-year-old, who has worked for Gristedes for more than 30 years. In the blink of an eye, hand sanitizer and disinfecting wipes became the hottest items for shoppers to get — and after 1,000 phone calls, the closest Perez could find them was through a distributor in Florida. “I was just nervous [that] I couldn’t find supplies.”
Despite multiple city businesses entering a shutdown in March to curb the viral spread, grocery stores like Gristedes remained open through the worst of the pandemic and into the ongoing recovery. From panic shopping to masked-up, and slightly more relaxed, aisle browsing, they’ve observed the city’s transition into a new reality through mere shopping habits.
Though shoppers eventually turned their eyes toward baking products (like yeast for bread), and chicken breasts and rice (when people started cooking at home amid restaurant closures), Perez sees long-lasting habits remaining for the foreseeable future.
“Nobody is splurge buying,” he said, adding that people are avoiding buying an extra box of cookies, for instance, or other sweets at checkout. “People are only buying essentials . . . it’s strictly economic uncertainty.”
In individual stores, meanwhile, employees had to manage crowds of shoppers coming in during the pandemic’s early days.
“It was never slow,” said Luis Torres, the 51-year-old manager at the Gristedes on 84th Street and Columbus Avenue, of the foot traffic in March and April. “It was always busy. It was a steady flow of people.”
But that doesn’t mean customers flouted social-distancing guidelines — “Everybody was respecting the rules in the store,” he said. People stayed apart from each other, and Torres’ store let five people in as five exited.
“It wasn’t a point where we had to close the doors at all,” he added.
Of course, there was the infamous run on toilet paper, paper towels and disinfecting products (household items can still be tough to find) but the rush spread to other sections of stores.
Max Schiffman, the dairy manager at the Gristedes on First Avenue between 65th and 66th streets, said eggs — a staple for cooking and baking — became a must-get item at the outset.
“People would be buying them out of the box as I was putting them out,” he said, adding that during these weeks in March and April, business more than doubled in his store, where he’s worked for 22 years. “I was always ordering extra and getting whatever I could get.”
The rush has since slowed, added Schiffman.
“Summertime is traditionally a slow time in supermarkets,” he said, adding that it’s not just because outdoor dining has returned at a number of city restaurants. It’s because many New Yorkers who fled the city remain out of town, something he sees each day he takes the bus up and down First Avenue from his Alphabet City home. “You look out the window and the streets are not full.”
Still, there’s an uphill battle for the foreseeable future — as distributors supply products in lesser supply. But there’s a silver lining.
“People have been a lot nicer — they don’t get upset if you’re missing their favorite yogurt or ice cream . . . they seem to understand more,” said Schiffman. “They thank us for coming to work every day.”
As can be typical, especially before the pandemic, stores saw their fair share of rude customers. But since the outbreak, shoppers have shown these grocery employees, all of whom were deemed essential workers, their increased appreciation. And that has become the best outcome.
Ray Acevedo, the decades-long store manager for the Gristedes on 24th Street and Ninth Avenue, said he and his employees were previously taken for granted.
“I would say people are more appreciative . . . they got used to seeing us there helping them out when [the coronavirus] was really strong, and I think they appreciate it,” said the 65-year-old. “I feel it every day now . . . it feels better than before.”
Added Torres, “The only good thing about this pandemic is that people changed and families got closer.”