Work

My Family Owns a Grocery Store. The Supply Chain Is a Real Problem.

Near empty shelves for canned goods are seen in a supermarket in Washington, DC on March 20, 2020 with a photo illustrated coronavirus mask over the image of the shelves.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by iStock/Thinkstock and Mandel Ngan/AFP via Getty Images.

Coronavirus Diaries is a series of dispatches exploring how the coronavirus is affecting people’s lives. For the latest public health information, please refer to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s website. For Slate’s coronavirus coverage, click here.

This as-told-to essay from Tori Draeger, the director of marketing for Draeger’s Market, a Bay Area grocery store chain owned and operated by her family, has been edited and condensed for clarity from a conversation with Joel Anderson.

I started working for the family business in high school. I went away to college, came back to work during summers, and finally came back to work full time. I’m fourth-generation. My dad, Tony, is one of the main Draegers operating the business currently, along with my uncles Richard, John, and Peter and my aunt Mary Claire. They have all been in the business for 30 or more years, practically since they got out of college. My dad was a night manager in Los Altos, where I started as a checker; my uncle John was a butcher. Uncle Richard—he’s an operations guy and runs the deli, while uncle Peter is CFO. Everybody has a unique role to play. My cousin Frankie and I are the next generation.

I’ve personally had the coronavirus on my radar since early January. I love listening to the radio, where I heard reports coming from China a long time before we Americans got hit. As a family, we started meeting by late February, getting a task force together. We said, “We need to get on this.” When something like this happens, food stores have to be incredibly diligent—the health and safety of our employees and customers are paramount, so we started putting together all sorts of procedures.

Our COVID-19 task force meets every morning at 6:30 a.m. We have the entire Draeger family on this call, along with all four store directors, the assistant managers, our HR rep, our IT supervisor, and our maintenance manager. Today, our maintenance team was up all night installing sneeze guards. They literally didn’t sleep before this morning’s meeting so they could make sure our checkers were protected. We also have our grocery buyer on the call. We are using everybody’s knowledge and unique ideas to make things as safe as possible. The meetings go for an hour or hour and a half, but touching base in this type of situation is key.

The meetings originally started with “What are the policies that need to be put into place? Do we have enough supplies for our own people, like sanitizer? How often do we need to sanitize the carts?” We took the virus very seriously because we knew it could get bad. We considered things like “Should we close the salad bar, the soup bar?” As it got worse, “Yes, we should.” We were trying to determine best practices for handling each of these things; the situation is still evolving.

We’ve made a lot of changes in the stores in terms of trying new health practices. We’ve got blue lines on the floor, marked out 6 feet, in places like the deli, the meat counter, and the registers, where people tend to congregate. They’re big blue lines; they’re hokey-looking, but they do their job.

We’ve definitely spoken to other local families in the grocery business in the area. We trade best practices and look at what our competitors are doing. We appreciate the cooperation, and we appreciate good ideas no matter where they come from. For example, Safeway had the idea to install sneeze guards five days ago. We installed them last night. They’re big plexiglass barriers that our checkers can see through—hopefully it helps with the nonexistent social distance between customers checking out and our staff. We had a hard time getting masks and even sanitizer right at the start of this. We don’t want to bring home anything to our family, and we don’t want our checkers to get sick, so alternative solutions are what we’re working with.

Paper bags are another example. All this time, we’ve been teaching people to bring in reusable bags because we want to be environmentally friendly. But then we realized those bags could be a source of cross-contamination. So, now we’re asking people to leave them in the car. We have a “door monitor” at the door, telling customers what’s going on and why. It’s only a temporary thing. We’ll be able to go back to reusable bags eventually.

People have been amazing. We’ve maybe run across one or two grumpy people who do not want to listen to anything we say, but overall, everybody has been really great about all the new health and safety measures. That’s in Los Altos. San Mateo has had more, one or two more grumpy people. People are generally understanding.

I’ve been in the store checking in Los Altos during all of this—if my employees are on the front lines, so am I. My aunts have been working in the San Mateo and Blackhawk stores. What I didn’t realize was how busy we would get. We were seriously overwhelmed with the volume of people coming in at the beginning. We’re a smaller company; this is busier than Christmas time for us. We’re ordering more groceries now than we did for Christmas!

There’s been a supply chain crunch. It’s been hard. I don’t want to say impossible. I hate to say impossible. We’ve been ordering paper products and having such a hard time—we can’t get anything. We work with a main grocery supplier that used to be a co-op called Unified Grocers. They were bought by SuperValu and then by UNFI … everything is kind of merging together in the grocery industry right now, which means we only have one main company to go to. They literally told us, “That order you put in? It got canceled.” They don’t have room on their trucks and don’t have enough drivers. I heard that they recently hired 200 new truck drivers, so hopefully we can get the supply chain crunch worked out soon.

Our stores haven’t gotten a frozen load in two stores in 2½ weeks. If I could get some frozen in, I would be super happy. And I haven’t seen toilet paper in a while. We’re contacting one of the vendors that services our commercial kitchen about individually wrapped toilet paper. This isn’t about making money; it’s about trying to get people what they need. We’re going through every avenue possible to find food. Our grocery buyer has reached out to restaurant supply companies that usually supply much larger commercial-size packaging with the hope that they may have smaller can sizes. Maybe we’ll get lucky.

Produce has been great. The produce supply chain has really held up well. The people who usually sell to restaurants are now able to sell some of that product to us, so at least it’s not going to waste.

One funny thing: There was a run on chicken. Apparently, Californians are in love with chicken. For one week, my husband and I laughed that there was no chicken anywhere in the Bay Area. That’s been cleared up. Our butchers have been working around the clock to get things cleared up.

We have finally seen the stores quiet down a little. Crowds have died off, and we’ve seen far less people coming through the door. It seems people are spending more and purchasing for longer amounts of time. It used to be people would come in daily and pick up whatever they wanted for dinner. We still see a good number of people in the morning during the senior hour, from 7 a.m. to 8 a.m. That’s when people think the new product is there. But if they can, they might consider coming in the afternoon because it’s actually less busy.

I work very closely with the staff in all our stores, and I do worry that they’re getting tired. They’re working seven days a week. We have an assistant manager who’s worked 12 days in a row. They’re exhausted, so we as a family have gone to pitch in, to help. We’re hiring as much as we can to help core staff. We’re a union store, so we’re working within union rules. I will say the union is working with us on that.

With restaurants and other businesses shutting down, I feel good that we’re hiring. Grocery is a fantastic career path if you treat it as such. I feel like so many people forget that. But grocery as an industry is huge, very important to our daily lives, and provides good, honest work to those willing.

And our employees are great. Most of them have the “Let’s do this. We’re on the front lines. Let’s do it!” attitude. The sneeze guard is something we did for them. It was great—one of our employees said very politely, “We would like those sneeze guards that we heard Safeway is using.” Well, we had been trying to source the plastic for them for three days already. The plastic supplier we normally use had sold all of their plastic to Safeway. Luckily our magic maintenance manager Sebastian found a new supplier, and they were installed that night for the next day.

I have a couple of seniors who work for us who definitely decided that they want to stay home. We’ve been clear that they are encouraged to take the time they need. They’ve got paid leave, paid sick leave, vacation time … just stay healthy and come back to us when this is over.

I love my family and my family business. The more I learn, the more I realize I need to learn more. It’s great to feel like you’ve got someone in your corner—in this family I’m lucky enough to have 11 people who are all crowded in that corner together. There’s been an amazing outpouring of support from staff and customers alike. Actually, for as horrible a global situation as this is, it’s been great. I’ve seen a lot more good than bad in people; sometimes it takes something like this to remind you how grateful we should be for our very blessed lives.

For more on the impact of the coronavirus, listen to What Next.