by John McCurry, contributing writer
Susan Budlong has worked at Dave’s Fresh Marketplace in Rhode Island for 24 years, currently serving as the independent grocery chain’s director of marketing and communications.
Budlong also sits on the executive committee and the board of directors of the Rhode Island Food Dealers Association. She has a clear view of what’s going on in the state’s grocery business, so her reaction when asked about Dave’s experience navigating the pandemic was telling.
“Jeepers! It was challenging during the first eight to 10 weeks. There were a lot of highs and lows,” she said. “Every day we encountered some new disruptions, whether it be from fears and anxieties among our customers and employees or from local, state and federal guidelines constantly changing.
“We were trying to make sure we maintained a sense of safety and make sure that everyone feels comfortable shopping with us.”
With 10 stores, Dave’s Fresh Marketplace is the largest locally owned and operated independent grocery in Rhode Island. Pre-pandemic, it had a robust regular cleaning program, with independent porters cleaning on a regular basis.
Near the end of February, as COVID-19 began spreading in the Northeast, Dave’s doubled their hours. Early knowledge of the virus led to increased focus on cleaning surfaces customers were likely to touch. Budlong said Dave’s took a proactive approach.
As the pandemic began to unfold, staff stepped up efforts. Stores rolled back their prepared food programs and began encouraging employees to wear masks and gloves. The chain was one of the first in the state to have plexiglass up in all locations. It installed one-way aisle markers and assisted older shoppers.
Dave’s doesn’t currently offer delivery or curbside pickup programs. To serve a burgeoning need, the company developed a digital shopping list.
“Our customer base was looking for help,” Budlong said. “They had no means of getting food. We came up with a digital shopping list and we continue to try to help them along those lines, even though it is not a third-party system.
“We are trying to support our community the best we can. It has been scary. We are focused on helping the elderly and the most vulnerable.”
Budlong added that shoppers associate Dave’s stores with high-quality products. They enjoy the experience of shopping there.
“We have tremendous perishable food programs,” she said. “Our fresh produce is outstanding, and the seafood stores within our markets are amazing.
“We have unbelievable fresh meats. We have butchers in all of our stores. That is something that is becoming rare these days, to have people who can custom-cut meat to order for our customers. We are also known for our customer service.”
There’s always a Dave’s staff member available to answer questions. Budlong said Dave’s takes pride in being responsive and finding the products customers request.
“If you look at our website or our Facebook page, you will see our community service in action,” she said. “You will find the interaction to be remarkable. The things people comment on most frequently are the freshness of our products, the quality and the great customer service.”
With many restaurants closed in the spring and still not operating at capacity, more people have turned to cooking at home. That’s always been the case with Dave’s customers, but more so this year. Dave’s has a dietitian on staff who fielded many questions about preparing meals that would last and freezing prepared foods.
“We have a very strong tendency within our customer base to explore and procure unusual spices and flavorings and a wide variety of fresh herbs,” Budlong said. “We did notice everyone suddenly wanted to bake. Getting enough yeast and flour to them was a challenge. We ended up packaging our own commercial-grade flour for them to make sure to meet that need.”
Budlong credited Dave’s team of four buyers for working tirelessly and quickly procuring groceries, including sources for hard-to-come-by paper products. They networked with both local and national vendors, relying on relationships developed over the years.
“We have had days when our shelves didn’t look quite up to the standards that we normally set, but we managed to get people what they needed and remain nimble,” she recalls. “We were not constrained by the size of some other retailers. We did truncated hours and we provided a senior shopping hour. At times, we had to limit capacity.”
Dave’s was among the first grocers in Rhode Island to raise pay – a $2 per hour increase for hourly workers and a $100 per week for salaried. That ran from early March to mid-July. The chain is exploring additional ways to reward employees.
Rhode Island had the first statewide mandate to wear face masks in the U.S. Dave’s requires all employees to wear masks and encourages customers to do so.
“We have a few customers who do not wear them due to health reasons, and we will not refuse them service,” Budlong said. “We need to provide them service as an essential business. That does create some anxiety among others in the store. We feel that masks will be part of our immediate future, for at least six months, for employees and customers.”
Budlong stayed in contact with other members of the state’s food dealers association during the initial weeks of the pandemic, when no in-person meetings were held. She said other independent grocers experienced the same shock, uncertainty and anxiety.
Every day there was something new. Members discussed ways to support employees and customers. As a whole, the state took on a progressive attitude.
“It felt overwhelming at first,” she said. “You get into a sense of rhythm in running a business…suddenly we are being told we can’t serve any prepared foods, and we have to limit our capacity of customers to 30 percent.
“You need to make customers stand in line outside. You need to have masks. This is all very startling. It took a week or two of feeling confused before we adjusted to this as the new normal and started to realize we could work through this.”
To learn more about Dave’s Fresh Marketplace, click here.