‘We’ve never seen anything like this before’: Local grocers face high demand amid COVID-19 outbreak

Students and residents are flocking to buy household goods, forcing stores to limit certain purchases.

Cars line up in front of Fresh Grocer in Progress Plaza to pick up shoppers on March 13. The grocery store has seen a huge increase in sales since COVID-19 hit the country. CLAUDIA SALVATO / THE TEMPLE NEWS

Temple-area grocery stores are facing high demand for household goods and food supplies as students and residents flock to stock up amid the spread of COVID-19, a strain of coronavirus.

Across the U.S., customers are buying products faster than many stores can replenish them, the Washington Post reported. At Fresh Grocer, a chain grocery store on Broad Street near Oxford, dozens of shelves were bare Saturday afternoon as shoppers milled the aisles. 

“We’ve never seen anything like this before,” said Tom Hept, the store’s manager. “I mean, we’ve had big crowds before snowstorms, but nothing like this. It’s every day.” 

The store has struggled to keep essential groceries as basic as milk to commonly demanded goods like water, disinfectants and tissues in stock as customers react to the COVID-19 pandemic, Hept said.

What is COVID-19?
COVID-19 is a disease caused by a new coronavirus which was first discovered in Wuhan, China in December 2019. It causes respiratory illnesses. The disease has since spread to dozens of countries, and on March 11, the World Health Organization declared the outbreak of coronavirus a pandemic.

Daniel Ju, a junior facilities management major, visited Fresh Grocer twice in four days, he said. During the first trip, he waited for over 30 minutes at the self-checkout.

“I actually came for toilet paper today because I’m almost out, but I’m not in a rush to get it like everybody else,” Ju said. “I think people are kind of overreacting. It doesn’t seem like that big of an issue here, at least.”

Philadelphia has four presumed positive cases of COVID-19, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Health. One Temple student has tested positive for the virus, The Temple News reported.

Like other stores, Fresh Grocer has set limits on how many of certain items shoppers can buy at once, with signs at each checkout line detailing how much disinfectant, toilet paper, bottled water, Lysol wipes and other in-demand goods customers can purchase.

Shoppers wait in a line that extends into the freezer aisle to check out at the Progress Plaza Fresh Grocer on March 13. CLAUDIA SALVATO / THE TEMPLE NEWS

Carmen Edwards, a Fresh Grocer employee working at the store’s checkout lines Saturday, said customers have so far been understanding of these restrictions.

“We didn’t even get as many complaints as we would on a regular day,” Edwards said. “Everybody must know everybody’s trying to buy the same things, so they’ve been patient.”

Cousins Supermarket on 5th Street near Norris has faced a similar increase in demand, but has so far kept items other than hand sanitizer in stock, said Shakur Madhai, a manager at the store.

Madhai, pointing to pallets holding hundreds of cases of water, said he had anticipated the demand for water and ordered extra. Still, Cousin’s was limiting purchases to three cases per customer to avoid a sudden drought, he said.

“This is a family-owned business,” Madhai said. “We do whatever it takes to keep going.”

Food Resources for Temple students during COVID-19
PhillyFoodFinder offers a map of food resources in the city for students who need help finding other food pantries in the city outside of Temple.

PhilAbundance, a nonprofit organization on Galloway Street near Pattison Avenue, has a similar food map on their site.

Share Food Program, a nonprofit on Hunting Park Avenue near Henry, offers food programming during COVID-19 to community distribution sites around Philadelphia, according to their website.

Bebashi Transition to Hope, a nonprofit social services organization about a mile south of Main Campus on Spring Garden Street near 13th, has food pantry hours on Monday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday 2-4 p.m. and Tuesdays 10 a.m. to 12 p.m., according to their Facebook account. .

Both stores have also struggled with staffing, asking employees to work overtime or reassigning them to other sections of the store when necessary.

Catherine Mills, a retired nurse who lives on Girard Avenue near Broad, came to Fresh Grocer to buy some “good, hearty food,” filling up her cart with canned beans, rice, and noodles. She said she planned to go to Cousin’s next, hoping to find whole milk and other items she was disappointed to find were out of stock at Fresh Grocer.

“Somebody had told me the shelves were empty,” Mills said. “They said, ‘I hope you even find something.’ I thought the Fresh Grocer, with all the college students around, might keep stuff for the kids. But everybody’s just grabbing stuff.”

A lone package of turkey wings sits in the freezer in Fresh Grocer in Progress Plaza on March 13. The store has experienced an unusual increase in sales due to public concern of COVID-19. CLAUDIA SALVATO / THE TEMPLE NEWS

James Washington, 31, a warehouse supervisor, traveled from his home in West Oak Lane with his girlfriend to buy their monthly groceries at The Fresh Grocer. He said he was struggling to find reasonably-priced spaghetti.

“I was out on Thursday and it was real bad,” Washington said. “But it was still stuff in stores, right, just no water. Now you can get pretty much nothing.”

“I think they’re overreacting,” Washington added. “I mean, if everyone’s in the store at the same time, nobody’s going to get anything.”

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