For Minnesota rural grocers, finding new ways to operate in the face of COVID-19 is not just a business matter. It’s personal.

    “We know every person that walks through the door here. We are related to many of them and friends with all of them. We want to keep them safe." These are the words of one Northwest Minnesota grocer to Shannon Stassen, University of Minnesota Extension Northwest Regional Sustainable Development Partnership (Northwest RSDP) program associate.

    Stassen and Northwest RSDP executive director Linda Kingery recently partnered with Statewide Health Improvement Partnership (SHIP) staff Julie Flathers to prepare a tip sheet for protecting rural grocery stores against the coronavirus. RSDP is mailing the sheet to all 250 rural grocery stores across the state, and Kingery and Stassen have made phone calls to grocers across the region.

    A common sentiment grocers expressed was, “People know they can call me.” At the same time, store owners are feeling the strain of operating on the front line.

Frontline workers

    On March 18, Governor Tim Walz declared grocery workers as emergency personnel. There are approximately 250 independent grocery stores located in Minnesota towns with populations less than 2,500. “Small-town grocers are the front line of healthy food access for many communities around the state,” said RSDP statewide director Kathy Draeger.

    Corey Christianson, owner of KC’s Country Market with stores in Badger and Greenbush, agrees. “We certainly want to prevent any transmission from happening here, but it’s also about protecting food security,” he said. Christianson’s Greenbush store is located in a designated food desert. If the store were unable to operate, residents “would have to drive quite a bit farther for staples.”

Increased demands

    At a time when customers are stocking up, several grocers who spoke with Kingery and Stassen expressed that they are now covering the store with fewer employees. With some employees in vulnerable populations or home with children who are out of school, there are fewer people stocking the shelves and available to help with the increased demands of assembling orders for curbside pickup and delivery. According to Kingery, a few grocers she spoke with expressed some version of, “We’re getting tired.”

    David Wilson, manager of Root River Market Cooperative in Houston, Minnesota, began offering curbside pickup service from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. in response to COVID-19. “I don’t necessarily have the staff for it, [but] it’s something we have to do either way.”

    Wilson estimates that most orders are assembled within 15 minutes of the call, and staff call the customer back to notify them it’s ready for pickup. Customers either pop open their trunk, or the grocery staff open a car door and set the groceries inside.

    “Switching to curbside pickup only can be daunting. In addition to all the stocking, they are doing all the loading and delivery,” Kingery said. “But on the other hand, if risk is reduced then they can bring more employees back in.”

    Christianson is also feeling the strain. “With so many of our workers like our family in one household, if anyone gets sick we really have to close two grocery stores down.”

Getting creative

    In addition to the tip sheet developed with SHIP staff, resources like RSDP’s guide for developing COVID-19/Emergency 14-day meal kits and tip sheet for small-town groceries transitioning to curbside pickup and delivery services provide grocers with concrete steps they can take in response to the pandemic. Many of Minnesota’s small-town grocers have limited time and connectivity to download information, so RSDP staff have mailed the new tip sheets. Store owners are also finding their own creative ways to keep staff and customers safe, and they’re reaching out for community support where needed.

    At KC’s Country Market, employees and family members made masks and are asking everyone who comes into the store to wear one. “We asked ourselves the question of if there was anything we could do to protect ourselves from getting anyone else sick, and the answer was, ‘Yes, of course,’ and this is what we can do,” Christianson said. He estimated that his sister-in-law alone has already made approximately 200 masks for store customers. “We just hand them out, [and] most people are very gracious [about wearing them].”

    As public guidelines have changed, Christianson has observed a shift in more customers demonstrating comfort with wearing masks. He said that whereas four weeks ago some customers may have said “no” to wearing a mask, they now express gratitude. “If we can convince people to do simple things [like wearing a mask], it’s helping us get back to normal quicker,” he said. Interviews for this article were conducted in March to mid-April. On April 29, the Minnesota Grocers Association recommended that customers wear face coverings or masks in grocery stores.

    Wilson of Root River Market in Houston said that his staff are taking the precautions they can, and yet aware of the risks that remain. “We [have] sanitizers right as you walk in, so I sanitize as I walk out and walk in. You get [cracked] hands because of that, but we’re doing our best to stave off what we can.” Wilson asked that this article share the store’s preference for taking credit card numbers vs. checks as a safety precaution. “Basically, folks call in, we take down their order, and we call them back with their total. Most of the time we are doing a check or credit card order over the phone,” he said. “We prefer credit cards because then we’re not touching something someone else has touched.”

Community support

    RSDP staff have heard of a number of examples of community members stepping up to support their local grocery store. Some of the store owners who spoke with Kingery and Stassen said they are reaching out to volunteers to help them provide delivery services. A store owner in Lake Bronson expressed gratitude for the Far North Spirits distillery in Kittson County, which provided free disinfectant for the store at a time when it was unavailable in the regular supply chain. Another store owner thanked the county for providing her with masks.

    In some cases, community members are approaching store owners with offers of help. For example, Northwest RSDP board chair Gail Larson of Newfolden shared that friends Sharon Holmstrom, Joyce Larson and Linda Ueland have made masks for Sethre’s Grocery and other local businesses including the hardware store, food shelf, and hospitals in Thief River Falls and Ada.

    Larson offered to wash the masks for the grocery store, although owner James Sethre is able to provide that service himself. “Joyce [alone] has made over 400 masks,” Larson said. “Young’s General Store in Middle River gave Joyce a discount on fabric, elastic and ties when they learned what she was sewing.”

The long haul

    While stores’ immediate changes have attracted attention, Kingery cautioned that it’s important to recognize that grocers see themselves in this for the long-haul. “In addition to looking at the things we can do to get through the first short while, they are also looking at how do we adjust to this new way of operating,” she said.

    “We know the risk of us entering a major recession,” Christianson said. “Let’s just stay healthy first.”

    Draeger sees RSDP’s new grocery tip sheets as part of a larger strategy to build food system resilience across rural Minnesota. “In the short term, the transition to curbside pickup and delivery is one way we can protect those frontline grocery workers and protect consumers by having an alternative to in-store shopping,” she said.

    RSDP staff are also working to build long-term supply chain connections between farms and rural grocery stores. A new Farm to Grocery Toolkit developed in partnership with the Minnesota Institute for Sustainable Agriculture (MISA) and Minnesota Department of Agriculture provides tools and templates to help farmers and rural grocers establish new business relationships.

    “You create direct retail connections that could be for produce, grains, edible beans, shell eggs, any USDA-processed meats, for example,” Draeger said.

    RSDP staff are also working with farmers, grocers and wholesalers to explore alternative models for moving products from farm to rural grocery. These include an innovative backhaul strategy that brings excess food products into the rural grocery store as a docking point, and then transports them back to the wholesaler using open space on delivery trucks.     

    “That is a way that we can have more access points to the supply chain for local farmers,” Draeger said.

    Looking beyond the COVID-19 crisis, Christianson predicts that there will be more appreciation for the importance of small rural grocery stores and their workers.

    "After the virus, they might realize how important a local business is to the well-being of the community especially a cornerstone business that cares about the health of its customers."