by John McCurry/contributing writer
Employees at Highland Park Markets, a Hartford, Connecticut, area grocer, are working hard to serve customers during the coronavirus crisis. Molly Devanney, a company VP interviewed during the first weeks of the pandemic, said activity has been crazy. Employees are working hard to restock shelves and perform extra cleaning of surfaces.
“We’re also dealing with truck delays and the effects of being out of some stock,” she said. “Some people understand and some don’t, but we are continually trying to educate the consumer and to educate our staff so that they can let people know why we are out of Lysol wipes and when we can expect to have some in. We have had to reach out to different vendors to get some stock. The restaurants are not as busy, so we have reached out to some of their suppliers to get some supplies. Having great relationships with a variety of suppliers has been very beneficial.”
Highland Park stores open at 8 a.m., but Devanney said customers start calling at 6:30 a.m. to ask for items to be set aside for them.
“We try to look out for our community the best we can,” she said. “We are taking a risk just coming to work.
Devanney’s family operates four Highland Park stores in the Hartford area. One of her cousins operates a fifth store in Coventry. The chain is known for offering full service in all of its departments.
“We really try to make it a full-service experience for our customers,” she said. “If they want one pork chop, we give them one pork chop, not a package of four. We really thrive on quality, too. We partner with Certified Angus Beef to make sure that all the beef in our cases is 100 percent certified. Our meat departments and deli departments have Bell & Evans chicken, and the fish we use is Foley Fish, which is top quality. We reach out to companies that we believe are the best that you can get.”
Highland Park stores range in size from 14,000 s.f. to more than 22,000 s.f. Devanney, whose grandfather founded the company in 1958, said the current roster of stores is a good number, but the chain is willing to examine future opportunities for expansion
“We are really enjoying our stores and we are managing them well and we have great staff where we are now,” she said. “With growth comes growing pains. Where we are is really good right now, but down the road we may be looking into something more.”
Highland Park recently completed a multi-million-dollar remodeling of its Farmington store. Devanney said the improvements included enlarging the deli department and creating more space for foods to go. There also is a new hot bar and salad bar area. Prepared foods are increasingly popular with customers.
“We just started doing breakfast sandwiches in our store locations, and that has gone really well. Our customers really enjoy coming in and getting a good quality breakfast at a great price in the morning,” she said.
An early start
Devanney grew up in the grocery business. She started in the Highland Park produce department when she was 14.
“I learned what every produce item was and what the PLU numbers were so that I could start on the register as soon as possible,” she recalled.
In normal times, finding sufficient labor can be a struggle. Also, finding people interested in learning a trade can be tough.
“We really shine on our specialty meats and not that many people want to become expert meat-cutters anymore,” Devanney said. “When we do have people who express an interest, we really try to work with them and help them build a future with benefits. A lot of people from the restaurant industry have ended up with us because of the better hours and the opportunity to get insurance. There’s a lot of companies that don’t have what we have.”
Grocers facing unprecedented supply chain challenges
Wayne Pesce, president of the Connecticut Food Association, said the state’s grocers have been overwhelmed from a supply chain standpoint. He said grocers are racing to catch up with pandemic-related demands, but that’s tough with changes occurring daily.
“We are trying to keep our stores stocked and trying to keep our staff safe, and our customers safe. There has been a mad dash to the grocery store like we have never seen before,” Pesce said.
Stores offering home delivery are struggling to keep up. What normally is a 24-hour delivery window has turned in to four or five days.
“It’s a good problem to have in the sense that sales are through the roof, but we do have a concern about our employees and the people coming into the stores,” Pesce said. “There is a concern with the fact that we have banned plastic bags and now our staff is handling the bags that customers bring in.”
Some retailers are opening an hour earlier for senior shoppers and allowing first responders in during that hour as well.
Before Covid-19 became the dominant news, 2020 was off to a decent start for grocers, Pesce said. Labor costs increased, with the minimum wage rising to $15 per hour, but otherwise business was OK, he said. There was reason for optimism.
“The fourth quarter of 2019 and the beginning of the first quarter of this year, before all the chaos struck, was going well,” Pesce said. “The grocery retailers in our state were holding our own. I think they have learned to navigate in a sea of online and delivery and all the other channel-blurring things that are happening right now. We were off to a decent start. This now changes everything. It has disrupted daily life.”
Connecticut hasn’t seen much recent expansion in the grocery business. Pesce noted that the state’s population has declined by 170,000 over the past decade.
“We are under attack by online shopping and we are overstored in a small geographic area. We haven’t seen any population growth, so we are not going to see store growth in 2020,” he said.
Challenges notwithstanding, Pesce remains optimistic.
“Once we get past some of this, life will return to normal,” he said. “We will figure out how to keep the supply chain filled and how to keep our associates safe and coming to work. That’s what we face. We are on the front lines of this. You can close restaurants, you can close gyms, libraries. You are not going to close grocery stores. We are doing our best to contain a situation. It will never be the new normal. It’s a once in a lifetime event. Grocers are trying to ramp up and deal with the demand but keep people healthy. It’s a tricky new road.”
Pesce said there will be an issue that not many have thought of yet and that’s if people start trying to return the food and other products they hoarded.
“We may need to work with food pantries,” he said. “That’s an issue no one’s thought of yet. How do we get back to a sense of normalcy? We will be trying to sort out what we have learned.”