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Grocers bring in more help, change hours and set restrictions to accommodate customers

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Megan V. Winslow/Town Crier
Whole Foods customers in Los Altos wearing face masks shop for groceries Tuesday afternoon. The company announced Wednesday it is changing shopping hours to allow senior citizens to shop one hour before the general public.

Updated March 24 at approximately 2 p.m.

The Town Crier is checking in on businesses across town impacted by the county's shelter-in-place order announced Monday (March 16) due to the novel coronavirus. This is the first part of the series; it focuses on local grocery stores and standalone markets. 

There is little time to rest for Craig Kozy and his staff at DeMartini Orchard, who are scrambling to satisfy customers' needs during the county's shelter-in-place order.

 A few days before the directive, Kozy had to close the San Antonio Road store’s online ordering Avocado app — which enables a lot of the grocer’s elderly customers to request doorstep delivery — because they were overwhelmed with orders. He said the store was “totally swamped and wiped out of everything” March 16. Two days later, things calmed down, but online ordering was not an option for at least another week.

“Produce-wise, we are OK, but for groceries it’ll take us until the middle of next week to be stocked with most (groceries),” Kozy said. “We get them from a lot of different vendors.”

Kozy adjusted his hours, closing at 6 p.m. instead of 7 p.m., due to the lack of commuters. The staff aims to implement best sanitation and social distancing practices, like keeping the cash register area clean and limiting the market to only allowing 20 people at a time. The latter hasn’t been a problem, as store-swarming is dwindling by the day, but he said management has had a hard time finding cleaning supplies in the wake of countrywide binge buying.

“We are having a little problem finding chemicals and stuff, just like everybody else,” Kozy said. “We are here and we are working but I’m hoping we don’t get sick. I just worry about my employees.”

For as long as possible, San Francisco-based Roli Roti will continue its food-truck service in the DeMartini Orchard parking lot. Kozy said that this was his solution when the market ran out of chicken. Now, at least, his customers can still buy roasted chicken.

BARE SHELVES

The trend of too many people and too few items has translated into empty shelves in many grocery stores in town.

The weekend before the mandate, the downtown Los Altos Safeway location seemed to be ever out of toilet paper. Signs flanked the aisles: “With limited quantities from our warehouse due to the coronavirus pandemic, we can only allow up to two per household on paper products and cleaning supplies.”

Safeway employees posted signs in the window March 18 advertising special hours are being designated for senior citizens. From 6 a.m. to 9 a.m. Tuesday and Thursday mornings, seniors can shop without crowds in the wake of orders they should be entirely self-isolating. A Safeway employee later told a Town Crier writer that pregnant women will also be granted entry during those hours and that there would not be "hard enforcement."

During a teleconference between city leaders and staff on March 18, city manager Chris Jordan and Police Chief Andy Galea discussed whether senior hours, instituted across the globe since the outbreak of COVID-19, made sense.

“Is that really a good idea? I’m torn on this one,” Jordan said. “The order says that those (65 years and older) are supposed to be home, but then we are essentially providing a time that encourages them (not to do that).”

Galea said he believes people will venture out regardless, so if the most vulnerable population can go during a time when they are least exposed to the virus, the numbers of the possibly infected could drop.

“If the order is ignored, we will still have just as many people packing aisles and standing in line… it would really be for nothing,” he concluded.

The new normal

Like it or not, more stores are embracing the idea. Whole Foods announced on its website March 18 that locations have changed their hours to “ensure the safety and wellness of the community.”

“Customers 60 plus are welcome to shop beginning one hour before stores open to the general public,” store officials announced on the Los Altos store’s webpage.

The store will close at 8 p.m. to allow team members can restock shelves, sanitize surfaces and rest in preparation for the next day.

Draeger’s on First Street is not offering senior-only hours, but it has changed the hours for all store locations to 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. Due to increased demand, the home page of the market’s website read last week, the Instacart delivery service is running at full capacity and some orders may take a week to be fulfilled. Underneath a banner that asks sick people to shop online only, tabs are posted to direct visitors to information about what Draeger’s is doing to protect the public and its employees and safe food practices at home.

Among the precautions Draeger’s is taking, customers are being provided with hand sanitizer and wipes, and carts and baskets are being wiped down throughout the day. Self-service coffee bar items have been pulled, and gloves are given to customers at all food bar locations.

The Lucky supermarket on Grant Road has not revealed any changes to its operations, but its corporate leaders have announced mass hiring. Lucky’s parent company, SaveMart, hopes to hire close to 1,000 people across the FoodMaxx, Lucky and SaveMart locations due to the increase in help needed because of actions taken to flatten the curve of the coronavirus.

When the Town Crier attempted to contact the media team for Los Altos’ Safeway and Andronico’s Community Markets to ask what kind of precautions are being taken now as people shelter in place, we were unable to reach anyone. Following our deadline, spokesperson Wendy Gutshall sent a chain-wide statement.

"We plan to keep our stores open and we thank our customers for their patience and understanding during this critical time," she said. "We are deeply grateful to our store associates for their tireless dedication. They are working long hours under difficult circumstances to make sure their neighbors have the essential goods they need. We’re refilling high-demand products as quickly as we can through our robust and sophisticated supply chain. If a customer is looking for a product that isn’t in the store today, we are working to replenish it... stores have adjusted their hours to give our teams the time they need to restock shelves and provide enhanced cleaning throughout each day."

We are still unable to reach any representative of Foothill Produce on Homestead Road about its current operations.

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