A Brooklyn co-op hustles as food demand spikes

Like other grocery stores in New York City, the Park Slope Food Co-op, in Brooklyn, is out of hand sanitizer. But even with 17,000 members and weekly sales of $1.23 million, shelves at one of the nation’s oldest and largest food co-ops are nearly full. “We got the hang of it very quickly after the initial enormous jolt of extra purchases hit 15 days ago,” Joe Holtz, the co-op’s general manager and co-founder, said late last week.

With news of coronavirus spreading in New York, “We started upping our orders of non-perishables” — beans, grains, pasta and tomato products are big sellers — “and we stopped having shortages.” Generally speaking, Holtz says, “because we treat our vendors with respect and because we have a great record of paying on time, we find that distributors and farmers like selling things to us.”

On a Thursday afternoon, Ron Zisa, a receiving coordinator (a.k.a. paid staff member), razored open a sack of long-grain brown rice, waiting patiently until a stream of shoppers finished scooping from bulk bins. “We sold more than 700 pounds of garbanzos last week,” he said. “It’s usually about 300.” Zisa dumped the rice into a bin. The co-op sold 1,600 pounds of rolled oats during that period, versus a normal of 900, and 1,400 pounds of white jasmine rice, versus a normal of 600.

“These numbers would be even higher if we had more in stock,” Zisa said, shouldering his way past a wheeled stocking cart. “But we can’t get more deliveries. The food is out there, but the distributor doesn’t have the manpower to deliver it.”

Asked if the co-op’s local and regional supply lines were more stable than national or international supply lines, Holtz noted, “They’re all vulnerable, but so far they’re doing quite well.” As the days lengthen and warm, though, the co-op may have a supply chain advantage: local farmers supply 75–80 percent of the store’s produce during the growing season, and many of them plan and plant specifically to meet co-op demand. Moreover, they use mostly local labor, which means they’re not affected by potential migrant-labor shortages.

At a refrigerated case, cheese buyer Yuri Weber was taking inventory: the Truffle Tremor, the Taleggio, and the Emmenthaler were absent, but not out of stock. The cheese-cutting squad, gloved and hatted down in the basement, was cutting and packing wedges as fast as it could. “It’s hard to keep the Parmesan bin full,” Weber noted. “It’s a staple; it keeps.” Asked if there were any shortages up the supply chain, he said, “Not that I’ve heard of. It’s business as usual with dairy farmers.” Shipments of cheeses from France, Spain, Great Britain, Italy and Germany were not, yet, slowing down.

The co-op’s biggest Covid-19 challenge, it turns out, is the same as other stores’: continuously restocking shelves. The faster shoppers grab mizuna from water-misted shelves or tip cashews from overhead bins, the faster those supplies must be replenished by members, who work shifts of 2 hours and 45 minutes every four weeks. Amazingly, work attendance by members and staffers has not, so far, dipped, even amid advisories to limit social contact. Some members are even banking extra hours. Still, the furious pace means that many staffers, people who haven’t stocked shelves in decades, are now slinging boxes and stacking tissues instead of doing their regular jobs.

The co-op has never been a relaxed place to shop. Last Thursday, its 6,000 square feet were more crowded than ever, with shoppers hoarding or simply loading up, because they’re eating more meals at home. Weekly sales were on track to rise a third, to $1.6 million, by Sunday. Instead of shopping with baskets on small carts, members were pushing large grocery carriages down the store’s narrow aisles, jockeying for space. Before long, managers responded to the crowding by limiting co-op entrance to three people every three minutes.

Despite this inconvenience, scores of members lined up on the street, sometimes waiting, with good humor, for more than an hour to get in — evidence of their devotion to the co-op’s high-quality food and prices that are up to 30 percent lower than other grocery stores. (At two nearby supermarkets, there were no waits to get in, only slightly longer than usual check-out lines, and managers scrambling — just like at the co-op — to keep shelves full.)

Thanks to the co-op’s crowd-control measures, the joint was no longer  jammed over the weekend, a refutation to those who, concerned about contagion, called on Twitter for a shutdown of the market. That was a reaction not just to crowding but to the store’s business model, which puts so many in contact with food. A shut-down would be its own kind of disaster, many say, as the co-op provides sustenance to many on a limited income.

Last week, a co-op in Seattle, part of the PCC Community Market chain, closed for one day of deep cleaning after an employee tested positive for Covid-19. The same interruption could happen at the Park Slope Food Co-op, Holtz says, though he notes that Italy has kept its grocery stores open. “We expect to do the same unless ordered to close by a civil authority,” he says. “We assume that eating will continue.”