At Orleans Whole Food Store on the town’s Main Street the phone is almost always ringing now.
For the umpteenth time, clerk Elaine Peluso-Farris helped a customer place an order for curbside pickup.
“A clam shell?,” she repeats back. “Yeah, we are pretty wiped out. Let me see what I have.”
This is the the new normal for the specialty grocery store: plexiglass barriers, a ban on reusable bags, and a new delivery service by local honors students.
The store’s employees are all in masks and gloves, and are cleaning their hands, doorknobs, and shopping carts every hour that they work.
In just the last week they’ve had to buy a new phone with more lines to fulfill several hundred orders for pickup and delivery.
“So you want little containers,” Peluso-Farris said, after some time listening. “I’m gonna check all this and then call you with what we do have.”
Before the outbreak and social distancing recommendations, there were around 13 full and part-time employees at Orleans Whole Food Store. Now, more than a third have temporarily left because of health concerns.
Those who decided to stay have increased their hours, some more than doubling them, in exchange for hazard pay. But even with a minimum increase of $4 per hour, some said it was a hard decision to keep working.
“I had a couple of moments where I thought… should I be doing this? Should I really be doing this?,” recalled Cori Yannone, assistant manager at the store. She said she has a family at home whom she worries about infecting should she get sick.
“Ultimately, I know that it's a very important service,” she said. “We are providing people with food and the comfort of all those regular things.”
Still, the store has had to hire and train new people to pick up the slack.
Ajia Parmenter, had been working for a home organizing business, but lost nearly all her hours and income. Then she started to read about the exhaustion of grocery store workers.
“I started to feel not only the pinch of my own income, but [thought] maybe there’s some way I can help,” she said in a recent phone interview. While she’s just a few days into the job, she said the work has been a relief.
“I actually feel very invigorated being back out in the world,” she said. “I don’t have really too many concerns at this point about being in contact with people.”
Part of the job is understanding supplies and delivery. While suppliers are working to meet increased demand, some things come slowly, others are out of stock, and the store owners are regularly calling suppliers to make sure their store isn’t passed over.
It hasn’t been easy as a small store without the leverage of larger chains, said manager Heidi Trester.
“We used to get a bread order every day. Now we're getting a bread order twice a week,” she said. “So every time we think we have a handle on what the new rule—the new thing—is gonna be, then there's something else.
The big orders used to be brought into the store by delivery drivers, but now they're left outside to avoid contact. That’s extra pressure on the staff.
For some customers the changes have been a challenge. Helen Manzella, who works the register at the shop, said the hardest thing has been managing customer attitudes.
“Some people are really taking it easy and are just happy we have the screen [and] the gloves on,” she said. “Others are just, like, at their wits end right now.”
But many other customers, like Happy Vansickle, are finding what they need and don’t necessarily realize the stress behind the counter.
“I’ve been looking for this vinegar. I probably didn’t have to stop by here, but I did…. It’s exciting to go to the grocery store,” she laughed.
For 45 years, Janis Brennan has co-owned this shop with her husband. They said they’ll have to add up profits and losses down the road, but they’re proud to be providing a service at a time of crisis.
“There was concern even before this happened as to the sustainability of small businesses in small towns, and this changes everything,” she said. “I guess like everybody else we’re just holding on tight, feeling grateful for things being as good as they are here, and hoping for the best.”
For now it’s a matter of stocking the store, fulling people’s orders, and taking it one day at a time.