By Sarah Hamaker
RANKIN, Pa.—In a small town east of Pittsburgh, Carl Lewis opened Carl’s Café in a food desert nine years ago. “What attracted me to the area is that there was a gap that needed to be filled,” he told NACS Daily. “Today, I find myself in a different situation because I am the only store a lot of people have as an option.”
Corner stores like Carl’s Café in Rankin, Pa., have become lifelines to their communities, offering not only a place to grab needed items, but also a human connection during this time of social distancing and stay-at-home edicts. “My business has not slowed down because I’m a general merchandise store,” Lewis said. “This current situation hasn’t affected me as profoundly as you might think.”
That’s not the case for other corner stores. In New Orleans, Burnell’s Market has been struggling to serve its customers. “This is the only fresh grocery in the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans, so pretty much everybody’s a regular,” said owner Burnell Cotlon in a recent Washington Post article. With tourism at a standstill, half of his customers have lost jobs. He’s taken to slashing prices even lower on popular items and even extending credit to some who can’t pay for food. “This has gone from a grocery store to a food pantry,” Cotlon said.
In Los Angeles, family-owned corner markets have been especially hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic. “Foot traffic at many of those stores have become very erratic,” said Christopher Temblador, business counselor and associate with the Healthy Neighborhood Market Network at the Los Angeles Food Policy Council. “That unpredictability has store owners concerned about payroll and staff.”
Los Angeles is one city that has begun offering small businesses grants to cover payroll, which will help. “We need more resources specific to neighborhood markets in order to give these business owners some relief as they continue to provide food and essentials for their communities,” Temblador said.
One of the difficulties for smaller stores has been the ability to keep the items customers want in stock. “The five minority-owned businesses I work with have had to search high and low for essential items like milk, eggs, tortillas and Maseca corn flour,” said Temblador. He has worked to connect stores in order to facilitate sharing of items. For example, Metro Mart and Lupitas in Los Angeles needed corn flour, while Corona Ranch Market had trouble sourcing tortillas. “Through our networks, we’ve been able to solve these kinds of problems, and it’s really been great to see how stores are helping each other out with items,” Temblador said.
For Lewis, being an independent operator has allowed him flexibility in stocking his shelves. “I run all over town to find this or that,” he said, adding that his usual go-to vendors have had their own sourcing issues. “It’s a good thing I was well-stocked with sanitizer, wipes and bleach to keep the store sanitized because that’s one thing you can’t find easily,” he said.
Corner stores also find complying with local and state orders for sanitizing high-touch areas and the use of personal protection equipment like masks and gloves challenging. “Store owners are using their own stashes of masks and gloves to supply their staff and have worked with them to promote social distancing in their stores with signage and tape on the floor,” Temblador said. “These store owners are really adapting quickly to stay open in the midst of this crisis.”
Return to Normal
What does the future hold for corner stores once things return to normal? “The optimism of these store owners right now has been amazing,” Temblador said. For example, Metro Mart’s owner said that she’s been tracking what’s selling and thinking about changing the layout of her store to bring in healthier snacks. “She’s making plans on what to change once things start turning around, to capitalize on all the new customers this pandemic has brought into her store,” he said.
Lewis thinks when social distancing restrictions are removed, his customers will continue to shop as often as they did in the past. “I’ve been one of the lucky ones, as this pandemic has increased my traffic flow,” he said. “My business is dependent on my neighborhood, which is pretty stable right now, so I think I’m going to fare OK once this is over.”
“The resiliency of these stores has been great to see,” Temblador said. “How family-owned stores have been able to stay open during this time has been a blessing to their communities.”
Sarah Hamaker is a freelance writer and NACS Daily and NACS Magazine contributor based in Fairfax, Virginia. Visit her online at sarahhamakerfiction.com.
NACS has compiled resources to help the convenience retail community navigate the COVID-19 crisis. For news updates and guidance, visit our coronavirus resources page.