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A lone shopping cart sat in the front of South Broad Street’s Sprouts Farmers Market on Friday afternoon. The store’s selection of dried pasta, rice, and beans had been decimated, as had the frozen vegetables and chicken nuggets. Yogurt, eggs, and butter were running low, and there was no toilet paper or hand sanitizer.
Asked when a better time to come would be, an employee stocking shelves said it was anyone’s guess at this point.
As people rushed to prepare for an indefinite period of “social distancing,” waves of customers flooded into big-box and grocery stores in the region. On Thursday evening, lines in some local BJ’s Wholesale Clubs stretched to the frozen food sections. At Center City’s two Trader Joe’s locations, customers spilled out into the parking lot and the sidewalk, waiting just to get inside the stores. The scenes at local Acmes and Giants have been similar.
“We are seeing a snowstorm on steroids,” said Dana Ward, spokesperson for Acme Markets, which had instituted a five-item limit per customer on Thursday on products the supermarket can’t keep stocked, such as hand sanitizers, cleansers, and toilet paper. “Honestly, we’re just operating day to day,” Ward said.
Meanwhile, the area’s independent grocery stores and markets are weathering coronavirus concerns as well. Some have witnessed the same stockpiling tendencies as their larger competitors, while others haven’t experienced significant change.
At Riverwards Produce market in Fishtown, owner Vincent Finazzo had anticipated the stockpiling frenzy and placed early orders for bulk grains, nuts, seeds, pastas, canned fish, canned beans, “the basic kind of items people would flock to in a time of distress that also have a high shelf life.”
Customer traffic has been “like a busy Sunday, just continuously all the time,” Finazzo said when reached Friday morning at the tail end of a 15-hour work shift.
He’s taking the future step by step, but he’s well prepared, having stocked up on shelf-stable goods, which would take a long time to run out if there were any interruptions to the supply chain. For now, he’s placing large dairy orders, but scaling back on highly perishable items.
He’s been studying how Italy is treating grocery stores and monitoring the news and health advisories here and abroad. “We have multiple plans in place, some getting so drastic that hopefully, we won’t get to that situation,” he said.
“But I plan to stay open as long as possible, ’cause people count on us.”
That commitment is shared by Mike O’Neill, owner of O’Neill’s Food Market in Glenside.
“We usually don’t close during snowstorms or weather-related problems unless we have to,” O’Neill said. “Our local community ... they know we’re always here for them.”
The family-owned store has been open for 40 years and has seen many a blizzard (not to mention Y2K), but Thursday was its busiest day ever.
“People aren’t sure what the situation is going to bring,” O’Neill said Friday. “They’re shopping not knowing what they need to buy ... trying to be prepared.”
As with Acme and Giant, O’Neill’s is out of cleaning supplies and some paper goods; it had placed orders, but they weren’t filled. “When we ran out of those products, that was it,” O’Neill said.
But O’Neill was able to increase orders and arrange for additional deliveries for other items, thanks to long-standing relationships with local vendors who provide the market with things like bread, fish, and fresh sausage.
As for next week, “we’ll place our orders to replenish. We’re trying to take it a day at a time,” O’Neill said. He forecast a drop-off after a certain point, when people feel secure they have what they need. “You’re going to be really busy one day, and the next it’s not at all. We fully expect that to happen.”
That’s not the case at the Sieu Thi Big 8 grocery store on Washington Avenue, according to owner Xing Zhou. Only a block away from Sprouts — where lines reached past the deli counter by early afternoon on Friday — Big 8 was typically sleepy for the time of day.
Zhou hasn’t observed any change in customer buying patterns: They still come two or three times a week and buy what they need. “We do a local business,” he said.
The entryway to the store, in South Philly’s Hoa Binh Plaza, was well stocked, with large toilet paper rolls and vinyl gloves. Inside, the aisles were lined with basics like tinned fish, noodles, and long-lasting produce like onions and butternut squash, as well as coconut milk, curry pastes, and broths of all sorts. (There was even plenty of bleach left.)
Likewise, pantry staples such as canned beans, tomato paste, red lentils, and bulgur were readily available, wait-free, at Bitar’s, the 46-year-old Middle Eastern market/restaurant in South Philadelphia.
“I kind of anticipated this would happen,” said owner Amin Bitar, who along with his brother took over the shop from their parents in the mid-’90s. Bitar had weighed whether to invest more in inventory earlier this month and ultimately decided to overstock.
“And I’m glad we did,” he said. “Yesterday and today we’ve increased our [pita] bread orders. But based on what I’m seeing and what we have as a backup, we’ll be sold out probably by 5 o’clock.”
Would the storefront keep operating if the coronavirus situation intensified?
“We’d have no choice,” Bitar said. “Our family lives off of this business.
“Listen,” he continued, “this is a blip. If it’s a month, it’s a month — but a month in relation to the rest of the year or my past 58 years? It’s a hiccup. Just hunker down and deal with it. What else can you do?”