Jesse Weyl, owner of Bath Natural Market, puts together an order. The small local grocery store has moved to pick-up-only service during the coronavirus pandemic. Contributed photo

BRUNSWICK — Two weeks ago, Morning Glory Natural Foods in Brunswick and Bath Natural Market were hit with a wave of shoppers stocking up on toilet paper, paper towels, canned and dry goods and cleaning products. 

A regular Monday in March, according to Toby Tarpinian, an owner of the small independent Brunswick grocery store, became like “Thanksgiving and Christmas combined in one.”

“There was a week where things got pretty barren,” he said, compounded by shortages throughout the supply chain, with trucks only being able to deliver roughly 15% of what the store had ordered. 

Up the road in Bath, the situation was much the same. 

“At first it was challenging,” owner Jesse Weyl said. “We were witnessing the elevated levels of panic shopping (and) we were doing everything we could to keep it together and serve our customers with significant volume increases.” 

The change in customers was “astronomical,” he said. 

So they closed the doors for a day to take a deep breath and develop a game plan.

Orders wait to be picked up outside Bath Natural Market last week. Contributed photo

Now, the small grocery store is operating on a pick-up only basis, with customers emailing in their orders like an “old school paper grocery list,” Weyl said. 

The change in platform means shoppers aren’t wandering the aisles and grabbing extras like they might under ordinary circumstances, but Weyl estimated that the increased number of people buying food to cook at home, rather than going out to eat, makes up the difference. 

Turnaround times vary based on demand, and can be anywhere from a few hours to two days if it’s especially busy. 

Customers are no longer entering the store, and are instead paying over the phone and picking up their shopping bags outside. 

The employee base is small, fewer than 10, but Weyl said everyone is wearing gloves all the time and changing them frequently, and they are disinfecting surfaces with a stronger solution than they have used in the past. 

The store is closed on the weekends to give employees “a much-needed break.”

Tarpinian also had to adopt “highly restrictive hours,” he said. 

Morning Glory is closed on Sundays and open 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday, Wednesday and Saturday and 1 p.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesday, Thursday and Friday. There are special hours 9 a.m. to 10 a.m. Wednesday for seniors and the immunocompromised. 

The new hours allow the employees to recharge and restock the shelves without customers. The new online ordering system is increasingly popular and has also helped reduce traffic inside the store.

When the doors open, 10 shoppers are allowed inside, then follow one in, one out for the remainder of the day. 

“It’s a small store and people tend to corral in the same aea of the store, so 10 people” was the reasonable limit, Tarpinian said. At the two cash registers, there are now sneeze guards to protect staff and green tape boxes directing people where to stand so as to keep a safe distance between customers in line.  

So far, everyone has been respectful and understanding, he said. 

Like Bath Natural Market, the staff is small, with about 25 employees including the owners. Through it all, despite working “a million hours” and having to work in uncertain times,  everyone has kept a smile, he said.

Like anyone, Tarpinian initially and trouble keeping some products like baking flour, canned goods and bulk items stocked, but everything replenished pretty quickly, he said. 

“The farmers have been amazing and really helped the store be in stock in most areas,” he said. “All the farms are still in full throttle, and it’s a farm-to-table type community… Locally sourced products are still arriving daily.” 

Across the board, grocery stores have experienced shortages, limiting customers to just one package of toilet paper or two boxes of macaroni and cheese. Some, using larger suppliers, can’t bounce back as quickly as a small market relying primarily on local farmers, but even with limited stock, are serving multiple times the number of customers. Checkout lines everywhere are quickly becoming the front lines of the coronavirus pandemic

Cases of the coronavirus spiked over the weekend, bringing the total number of confirmed and presumptive positive cases in Maine to 253. In Cumberland County, one of two in the state where there has been confirmed community transmission, there are 142 cases, according to the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention. The state has reported one death and so far 41 people have recovered. 

Small, independent stores like those in Bath and Brunswick, are able to provide necessary items in a calmer environment than some others and are adapting to what Tarpinian said in a new learning curve every day. 

“We’re doing our best to take all of this in stride and do it at our own pace,” Weyl added. “As long as we stay healthy and as long as our supply chain does not dry up, we have a sustainable model to keep this going as long as we need to.”

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