A day in the life of a grocer: Social distance, community embrace

Why We Wrote This

Staffing and stocking a busy store amid a pandemic is a challenge that grocers are embracing, even as their customers fret over food shortages. 

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Emma McMahon rings up purchases at a checkout counter at the Fruit Center Marketplace, an independently owned grocery store, during the coronavirus crisis, on March 25, 2020, in Hingham, Massachusetts. The store has implemented changes to ensure safety for customers and employees – like sneeze guards at checkout counters.

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Maybe you have a local store, not a national chain, where you buy some, if not all, of your groceries. You probably know some of the staff by now, perhaps the store manager too, if he’s anything like Mark Mignosa, who runs a bustling grocery south of Boston.

Mr. Mignosa likes to know his customers, his competitors, and just about everything about the grocery business. He’s in constant motion on the shop floor and in the storeroom, working long days. In normal times, that workload keeps him busy.

But these are not normal times, not when shoppers are panic-buying, employees are calling in sick, and suppliers are struggling to keep up. “Will our food keep showing up?” the customers ask him, politely, from a safe distance.

The fight against COVID-19 is being waged on many fronts. Mr. Mignosa is fighting to keep his community and his workforce whole. His day is a window into what that looks like in an American town in a pandemic. 

The grocer gets up at 5 a.m., and washes his hands.

In the dark he dresses, eats something, tries “to clear [his] mind,” and opens his email. He begins.

On another day, in other times, this is when he would have looked at numbers – order sizes maybe, sales by hour, prior-year traffic. He would have been planning, imagining innovations, thinking hard about customer demands and employee needs and competitor strategies. He would have been thinking hard about how he might make his store better, as he loves to do.

Editor’s note: As a public service, we’ve removed the paywall for all our coronavirus coverage. It’s free.

But today the grocer will do none of that.

The grocer’s name is Mark Mignosa. And right now his grocery store – Fruit Center Marketplace, in Hingham, Massachusetts – could be almost any grocery store in locked-down America, and his story almost any grocer’s story. Except that his store isn’t any store.

It’s mine.

And like anybody, I need it to keep getting me food.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Mark Mignosa, co-owner and president of the Fruit Center Marketplace, an independently owned grocery store, poses in front of the fully stocked produce aisle in his store on March 25, 2020, in Hingham, Massachusetts. Grocery stores are considered essential businesses during the coronavirus crisis.

Will there be groceries?

By 6:30 a.m., after the emailing from home about health department updates, tactical questions from managers, and the day’s “directives” (“Even more handwashing!”), he’s in the Fruit Center’s aisles. “And from the moment you hit the store, you’re on,” he says. The doors will open at 7, instead of 8, for a newly added hour restricted to “60-and-over” shoppers, and away the day will race.

Agenda: Get enough goods on the emptying shelves, keep customers safe and calm, keep employees healthy and committed, and keep himself from getting sick. Ready, set, go.

Mr. Mignosa knows what I’m thinking, because he knows everybody’s thinking it. Will our food keep showing up?

Sometime in the past few weeks, as coronavirus cases and social lockdowns spread, Mr. Mignosa watched Americans decide they could no longer trust groceries to be available when they needed them. Hence the hoarding. Almost half the stores responding to a national Progressive Grocer poll likened their customers to frantic prospectors in a river running out of gold. The Fruit Center was no exception; foot traffic rose between 100% and 200%, and average checkout tallies doubled. Business still remains at “holiday levels,” says Mr. Mignosa, which is hard to manage in the best of times, and brutally hard when the “holiday” refuses to end.

Of course his customers, like shoppers everywhere, have questions: How can we expect the food system to keep working when it seems like most people don’t go to work? Will we ever actually see toilet paper again?

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Customers shop at the Fruit Center Marketplace during the coronavirus crisis, on March 25, 2020, in Hingham, Massachusetts. The store is limiting the number of people allowed inside at one time to allow for social distancing.

According to supply chain analysts and grocery industry insiders – as well as Mr. Mignosa’s own instincts and experience – the answers are easy:

Yes, there will be toilet paper; in fact there were a few rolls yesterday. (“Fred found some from an industrial paper distributor. The crew we have, they’re veterans. They can find things.”) It sold out. More’s coming.

And yes, the U.S. food supply chain will keep getting us food. Just not everything we’re used to.

The Fruit Center and its sister location in nearby Milton – both co-owned and co-managed by Mr. Mignosa and his brother, Michael – are about half the size of average supermarkets but still need deliveries from 30 distributors and some 200 vendors. Supply isn’t perfect, Mr. Mignosa says. “But honestly, I’m impressed by the product flow.”

He wishes product flow were his biggest worry.

On the front lines

The morning goes both fast and slow. Fast because of so much work, “and with very short staff. We’re down a few people in every department.” Employees have begged off due to illness, or discomfort with the exposure, or the need to care for others at home. (“Which is absolutely understandable, and what you expect,” Mr. Mignosa says. “We need people to do what’s right for them.”)

Slow because it’s just a few weeks since the national emergency declaration and already you can see the accumulating weariness among the staff – the wish for the days to hurry up and the bad dream to be over. Massachusetts is among the worst-hit states so far, with more than 5,700 confirmed cases of COVID-19. 

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Liam Carey stocks produce at the Fruit Center Marketplace during the coronavirus crisis, on March 25, 2020, in Hingham, Massachusetts. He says he is happy to still have a job.

In the store, Mr. Mignosa likes to move – constantly circulating with short quick steps. When he stops to talk, his torso tilts forward a little, as though to catch any words that might fall between you. He’s the kind of boss who wears the same outfit the clerks and stockers do. If there’s a sudden need for baggers at the checkout, he’s the kind of boss who bags.

Before all this, says Mr. Mignosa, “everything about our days was completely different. The whole focus would have been customer service, quality, freshness, the personal development" of employees. (The Fruit Center has 300.)  

Then there’s the scramble to keep up with orders and find new sources of must-have items. Cleaning goods and paper products remain hard to get, along with backroom store supplies like bathroom soaps and sanitizers, and sometimes deli meats and water, “like before a storm.” The other day there wasn’t any canola oil or dried black beans. “A lot of comfort food is going on,” Mr. Mignosa says.

Meanwhile, the store’s processes and tactics are changed almost daily. The salad bar is closed. The soup table is closed. To facilitate safe social distancing, the store is metered now; 50 or 60 shoppers are allowed in; after that it's one in, one out. Plastic glass barriers have been erected at checkouts, and hourly wages have been hiked $2 (as has become increasingly common industrywide). In front of the fish counter and deli counter and checkout stations, there’s blue tape on the floor to keep people at a distance. There are signs up.

By lunchtime Mr. Mignosa has no idea how many times he has washed his hands. Nor how many conversations he has had – with staffers, with customers. “All centered on the same issue.” Sometimes it feels like the conversations are all he does.

“We’re all a little frightened, because we’re all on the front line. I don’t even want to say that because I don’t want to scare anybody, but it’s the truth.” In Italy, an infected grocery clerk has died; the news reports are everywhere.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Signs at the Rocky Neck Fish counter instruct customers to stay behind a line at the Fruit Center Marketplace during the coronavirus crisis, on March 25, 2020, in Hingham, Massachusetts.

So he circulates and he talks. “It’s the time you have with every individual that matters. They need it, they’re sacrificing so much, they’re such pros,” says Mr. Mignosa. He tries to reach everybody. “Could be three minutes, 10 minutes. Could be a couple people, could be one at a time.”

Customers, too, seem hungry to talk. All day they ask Mr. Mignosa and his Fruit Center colleagues, “How are you? You guys doing OK?” The questions are repeated so often that one might imagine they grow stale when there’s so much work to do. “No!” Mr. Mignosa says. “No, no, we need people to ask us that. We need to ask them how they’re doing, too. With customers there’s more of a connection now than ever – because we’re all going through this together. It helps everyone.

“It helps me.”

When normal is a gift

Afternoon. Mr. Mignosa is in the parking lot, where there are too many cars. He’s traffic-copping, smiling – directing people in his simultaneously decisive and self-effacing way.

Outside the main door, shoppers are lined up in the manner we’ve all now learned – spread out like fence posts that got abandoned before the actual fencing went up.

I recognize some of them by sight if not name; 20 years of patronage among others just as loyal will do that. They seem calm. I ask them how they’re doing.

Good, they each say. Considering.

One couple – Christine and Alden – tell me, “This is nice.” Nice?

“Yeah, I feel better here,” explains Christine. “I mean this is our store. At home, the news – it can seem like nothing is working. Anywhere. And the isolation ...” She looks around; the sky is gray but it’s not too cold.

“Here feels ... normal.”

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Customers leave with their purchases from the Fruit Center Marketplace.

“Well, normal-ish,” Alden revises. He changes the subject. “I seriously want to thank these guys for their service. Is that weird?” I say I know what he means.

Inside the store a fully masked customer at the checkout waves his arm to indicate his filled cart and gives me a muffled, “This is great,” the skin around his eyes crinkling with a smile you can’t see. Meanwhile people keep floating slowly through the aisles, nodding to one another as they calculate just what 6 feet looks like. There’s still no toilet paper. “Or flour or chicken stock,” Mr. Mignosa says. It troubles him.

Because normal is exactly what he’s going for.

It isn’t normal, though. The shelves may look serene but the duck’s feet are windmilling frantically below the surface, just as they are behind the scenes at other supermarkets and food distributors and loading docks across the country. Mr. Mignosa can’t get his staff to leave on time. “It’s overwhelming, the amount of load coming in [for restocking],” he tells me. The store closes at 6 p.m. instead of its previous 8 p.m. to allocate hours for sanitizing and stock handling, but there’s still not enough time to get the work done, “and they don’t wanna leave.”

Mr. Mignosa adds, “I keep insisting it’s important to leave. You have to get rest. You have to take care of yourselves.”

Does Mr. Mignosa take his own advice?

Sometime between 5:30 and 6 p.m., he goes home. He has been at the store for 11 hours.

Tomorrow he’ll do it again.

“Reset”

Maybe you feel about some store that’s local to you the way I feel about the Fruit Center. Especially now.

On occasion over the past two decades I feared for it, as a Whole Foods and a Trader Joe’s and a Fresh Market came to town (joining two other supermarkets already here). But the Fruit Center just kept getting better, and thrived. It’s the kind of store where if you ask a stocker for the location of the capers, he doesn’t tell you or point; he drops what he’s doing and takes you to them, no matter how many aisles away.

The store is good, is the thing. Flagrantly competent, delightful to be in, easy to count on. You can count on it without even thinking about it. You can take it for granted.

Over the phone, I tell Mr. Mignosa about the customers who wanted to thank him and his people for their service, and I hear him exhale.

“You know,” he says, “we get a lot of that now. Seems ridiculous but I almost feel like a first responder, or a fireman, whatever. It’s not like we’re depended on for survival or anything.”

Yet you kind of are, I remind him, because: food.

“People are so grateful. It keeps you going. And when we get that support, in an email or a conversation, we immediately try to blast it around the store to everyone. It’s like: This is it. This is why. We can do this.”

And of course, I know they can. I know they will. It’s a grocery store, but right about now it feels a little heroic.

Mr. Mignosa is home for the night, his phone on (“always”) but his computer off. He and his wife have three kids – two in college and a high school freshman – and now the whole family is back together in the lockdown. “My family’s great; they’re very balanced,” he says, his voice making it sound as though “balanced” might be the hardest and most precious thing in the world. “It’s a good reset for me.”

So, he resets. Does he worry about how long he and his crew can keep going? “No. I’m just not at that point; I don’t think about that. Nothing past tomorrow matters.

“There’s no doubt that we can keep this going for our community.”

So tomorrow, like today, he’ll do the best thing he can think to do, which is to do his job as well as he can do it.

But first, he needs some rest. So he’ll go to bed.

Right after he washes his hands.

Editor’s note: As a public service, we’ve removed the paywall for all our coronavirus coverage. It’s free.

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