by Eric Pereira / staff writer
Nakul Patel, owner of Mt. Plymouth IGA Market in Sorrento, Florida, said consumers and the supply chain have gained a deeper appreciation for independent grocers during COVID-19 pandemic – and that feeling is likely to continue.
“I truly believe that the independent grocer will thrive this decade,” Patel said. “The manufacturers have realized the importance of independents and are spending huge dollars on digital marketing. Through IGA, we are running a digital ad and leveraging scale to attract customers from outside our community.”
Patel was quick to praise Ira Higdon Grocery Co., Mt. Plymouth’s main wholesale partner, for helping navigate the panic-shopping days of the pandemic.
“We had very few out-of-stocks and they even ran extra trucks to us when needed,” he said. “Tom Lipari and his team from Detroit filled the gap on all products the Higdons could not fill, running trucks to us two to three times a week [from Michigan].
“The other supplier that sent trucks to us every day was Cheney Brothers, who diverted all the excess foodservice, over-stocked meat, dairy, paper etc. to us.”
In light of all of this, Patel said he feels secure about the state of the supply chain.
“Suppliers have finally realized the importance of smaller independent retailers. It’s so much faster for an independent to maneuver change than a chain,” he said.
Patel and his wife, Nisha, have owned the central Florida market for 23 years. In an effort to enhance the store’s in-person experience and show support for the local community, they created an IGA Food Park with a food truck in 2020.
The outdoor eatery allows customers to dine out while adhering to social distancing. Patel said they also have used to food truck for serving hot meals to families in need.
“We are in the process of upgrading [it] to a larger one to keep up with demand and better workflow,” he added.
Moving forward, the Patels plan to emphasize the in-person experience of their market.
“We focused a lot on online ordering prior to COVID. And as more larger chains entered the online pickup and delivery craze, we have changed to a more in-store experience for our customers,” he said. “Everyone has been stuck indoors for so long, we want to give our customers a great social experience they have missed.”
His market’s online site, Powered by Freshop, will remain in place but they are “committed to the in-store experience.”
“We are not interested in DoorDash or any such service that uses our customer base to skim margins away from an already tight business,” he said. “We want to differentiate from the larger chains by focusing more on local and getting the community together.”
Protective barriers will remain inside the store, Patel said. Along with cleaning regimens, temperature checks on employees and vendors will continue for the time being. He described his associates as “amazing.”
“Their community needed them, and they went into a selfless mode,” Patel said. “They did not worry about catching COVID, they only wanted to take care of their neighbors. Every time I think back to what they did, it makes me very emotional.
“We even called so many of our past employees and they came back to help. It was like going to war against an unknown enemy. Every day they would work around the clock taking abuse from customers about masks and so much more.”