‘Strange cloud hanging over the grocery business’
by Mary Margaret Stewart, staff writer
Gateway Foods was founded in 1978 in Double Springs, Alabama. Some seven years later, Harold Garrett, current president and general manager, joined the company.
“I grew up in Double Springs and actually worked for the competition. I started in the grocery business in 1974. And I came to work with Gateway in 1985…just seemed like a pretty good opportunity.”
When Garrett came aboard, Gateway Foods had one location. With growth, he’s moved around Alabama and Mississippi to work in different locations. Today, there are six stores.
And while Garrett has been around for a while, he described the COVID-19 pandemic as “unchartered waters” for Gateway Foods and the rest of the industry.
“There was talk about Atlanta getting covered up, and they were shutting New York down…but we weren’t really seeing much of it yet,” he recalled. “Then they closed basketball and talked about not having football. When they start talking about sports in Alabama, it’s serious. Even the governor said, ‘If you want to have football this year, you better do this, you better do that.’
“But as far as what it meant to us, we tried to be as prepared as we could, but we’d never seen this before.
“What is good today is not good tomorrow, and what works today may not work tomorrow.”
In the beginning, Gateway Foods was fortunate to not have a single positive test in the company until September, according to Garrett. That’s about 280 employees. Unfortunately, that couldn’t be the reality forever.
“When they started being positive, it seemed like everybody at once. And seems like just right now – the last three, four weeks has been our worst outbreak in our company,” Garrett said.
As of mid-January, the state – and Gateway – was experiencing a pandemic push.
“It just seems like this part of the country right now is experiencing the most rampant outbreak of positives that I’ve seen yet. Matter of fact, in our six stores, we have three of our produce department managers who have all tested positive and are all sitting out quarantined.
“We’re just having to fill in where we can. Labor has been a major issue as far as keeping enough people there to run the stores. The stores don’t look up to par. We can’t keep things going, and we can’t get the products that we need. But that’s not isolated to us. That’s everybody.”
In addition to sickness in the workforce, the supply chain has been strained in Alabama, another national issue.
“I’ve seen 50-foot tissue and towel shelves completely empty,” Garrett said. “We’ve had to outsource from restaurants suppliers and hotel suppliers and office supply stores just to get something in.
“Our warehouse, Mitchell Grocery, is doing a great job to supply us. They’ve introduced brands that we normally don’t carry, and packs and sizes that we normally don’t carry, just so we can keep something on the shelf.”
Another important player in Gateway Foods’ success amidst the pandemic is the state grocers group.
“Ellie [Taylor] and Jessica [Brown] with the Alabama Grocers Association have been vital,” Garrett said. “We, as an industry, would be like a termite and a yoyo by now because we wouldn’t know which end was up.”
Turning to 2021, Garrett noted that there is a “strange cloud hanging over the grocery business right now.”
“It’s like the sun’s going to come out one day. I think it’s going to come out – we’re prepared for it to get better, but it doesn’t get better yet. But it’s going to.”
People are pent up and weary, said Garrett. Shoppers are frustrated, but coronavirus remains ever-present, something that grocery workers face on the frontlines every day.
“We went from being zeros to heroes, and then back to zeros,” Garrett said. “Because we were doing the best we could, and everybody saw that, but then everybody got tired of being cooped up, and we weren’t able to have everything exactly as they wanted. And they didn’t understand that.
“People are tired of being told they can’t do this, they can’t go here, they can’t go there, and they’re frustrated.”
Garrett acknowledged much remains unknown, but likes what he’s been seeing.
“The grocery industry is coming back, the supply chain’s filling back up, the warehouses are getting back to where they’re able to put the product back on the shelf,” he said.
“2021 is going to be a recovery year, and I don’t think the recovery is going to start until late summer – that’s my opinion.”
To read about another independent grocer in Alabama, click here for The Shelby Report‘s article. To learn more about what the Alabama Grocers Association has been doing throughout the pandemic, click here for another Shelby exclusive.