Coronavirus in Oklahoma: Grocers working outside their normal aisles
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While grocers are doing their best as temporary stewards of both the public health and local economy, consumers can help several ways as the coronavirus threat intensifies.
“We’ve never looked at cashiers as first-responders,” said Dennis Maxwell, director of marketing for Homeland Stores, “We ask our staff be given the same respect during this unique time in history.”
Whether keeping shelves stocked during a time of unprecedented volume or installing new safety protocols, local grocers are preparing for the long haul.
“We're not going anywhere," said Ba Luong, vice president of the 41-year-old Super Cao Nguyen Market in the Asian District. "So we've taken every precaution to ensure the safety of our customers and our staff."
This week Luong installed clear plexiglass barriers and footstep vinyl floor stickers at check-out to show customers where to stand while waiting in line. He said Crest Stores are tinkering with the idea, too. Maxwell said Homeland stores have installed similar partitions at some of its stores with an eye toward expansion.
Those who enter Super Cao Nguyen will pass two hand-sanitizer stations. Pass them without using, and don't be surprised if you get a polite reminder to do so. Staff use it all day and wipe down registers and counters after every transaction, but the store's standards are moot without public’s compliance.
“We just want to communicate to the public to stay clean first and foremost, keep safe distances, and not to go out if you're feeling bad,” Luong said. "As for shopping, there's plenty of food for everyone in supply, and if people will simply buy what they really need, there will be plenty for everyone."
While local independent grocers like Super Cao Nguyen focus on making their store a safer place, chains like Homeland, which also has United, Piggly Wiggly, Country Mart, Super Saver, Super Save and Food World stores, face the same challenges with more caveats. On top of stores statewide, Homeland has a presence in Georgia, Kansas, and Texas, each with its own leadership and local regulations.
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While Homeland has instituted increased sanitation protocols, added paid sick days, and are adding plexiglass barriers, stores are also creating opportunities for other food service professionals. The move is an attempt to open revenue streams to the local economy from one of the few reliable sources left.
"We may be the only one going right now," said Chris Rogers, deli and bakery director for Homeland stores. "If you've ever been poor, or ever had a job pulled away from you, you understand this isn't a fun feeling."
That's why Rococo and Social Deck and Dining are filling shelf space with their own entrees, soups, salads and sandwiches.
“We're starting with five stores, and we’re hoping to be in nine stores next week,” Rococo owner Bruce Rinehart said.
Homeland has also opened its parking lots around the state to food trucks.
About 15 operators have taken advantage so far; chef Drew Gallegos and his D&B Food Trucking is among them.
“I just got this truck late last year," he said. "This was supposed to be when I rolled it out anyway."
Gallegos said Homeland contacted him through his food distributor, US Foods, offering free parking lot space up to five days a week. He accepted on the spot.
“Yeah, it's really nice,” Gallegos said. “I’ve got some friends who are out of work right now. Friends I’ve known since we were in kindergarten, and we all ended up being chefs. This gives me a chance to help them out.”
Gallegos said his friends will take shifts the next two days to help him out and put some money in their pockets until unemployment checks eventually arrive.
Liz Howe, a chef for US Foods who helped coordinate with food truck operators, said the project has lifted her spirits.
"Hearing the passion and excitement in their voices has been heartwarming," she said. "These are tough times, and it’s comforting to hear from people who are still out there working hard to keep people fed.”
Maxwell said he's confident in his industry and community.
"It’s an opportunity for us to demonstrate the Oklahoma standard one more time," Maxwell said. "And that’s what we’re trying to do.”
REFER: More details the partnership between Homeland and local restaurants and food trucks online at oklahoman.com/dave-cathey
BOX: Food truck operators interested in setting up at a Homeland property in Oklahoma can call Tesa King at 405-290-3231. Homelandstores.com and click on the Contact Us tab or call 405-290-3000.