currents

To help feed us all

Shops embraced groceries during the pandemic and wove a fabric of mutual support

By ANNEMARIE SCHUETZ
Posted 8/26/20

CALLICOON, NY — The pandemic was, has been, horrible.

People have died. Friends have been ill. Our world feels out of control.

But there have been points of calm in the chaos.

Some of …

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currents

To help feed us all

Shops embraced groceries during the pandemic and wove a fabric of mutual support

Posted

CALLICOON, NY — The pandemic was, has been, horrible.

People have died. Friends have been ill. Our world feels out of control.

But there have been points of calm in the chaos.

Some of them are in our local shops.

“We just want people to be happy,” says Lori Grant, co-owner of Callicoon’s home goods store Spruce with her husband, David Tew. People want “to be treated with kindness. To feel taken care of.”

Of course, when they opened the shop in 2018, becoming grocers wasn’t what they had in mind. Food was part of the dream, sure—Tew comes from the food world—but a large part of their business was home goods. Sheets, towels, tableware. A few adorable stuffed animals. Beautiful things.

They sold tea, bread and cheese. New York’s Food and Agriculture department acknowledged them as grocers.

This was Spruce, pre-pandemic: “A few groceries, a few special things and home goods,” Grant says.

Grant and Tew worked hard building the business for two years. “We thought, ‘This winter we’ll get our website up, we’ll take a vacation,’” she said.

But when the crisis comes, you pivot.

‘We have to get food to people’

When the pandemic arrived, everything was wrapped in fear. Fear of illness, death and of the empty store shelves as grocery stores realigned supply chains. There were stories about seniors and the quarantined trapped in their homes with no meal delivery.

Nonprofits and local governments were working to take care of them all, but it’s hard to watch people suffer. And what if someone was missed?

“We thought, oh my God, what will we do? We have to get food to people,” Lori Grant says.

Nobody’s knocking the larger grocers. They were—and are—essential, their staff putting their health at risk to make sure we ate. But they can’t do everything and can’t be everywhere.

Spruce and other businesses that added groceries see themselves as supplementing the grocery stores, not competing with them. They’ve added online or phone ordering and bag or box purchases for curbside pickup. It minimizes time spent in the store. They can feed people who, for health reasons, daren’t venture into larger shops.

“We took our order sheet and said, ‘Let’s expand this.’” Grant said.

“This” was an order list that now ranges from milk to eggs to coffee to meat to flour... and flowers. Many are items not carried at larger stores, or from suppliers who aren’t big enough to sell to chains.

It wasn’t just Spruce, of course. At Narrowsburg Proper, for example, Joan Santo shifted from a “not so general general store” to offering more food. “We have a selection of meat, fresh veggies, charcuterie, locally made items, pasta, sauces... and now we carry beer, hard ciders and a selection of interesting non-alcoholic beverages,” she said.

And there have been more stores, known to those who are grateful to them, working hard to feed anyone who couldn’t get to a grocery store. Volunteers delivered purchases to those who couldn’t leave their homes.

Likely, these stores all followed a similar path: working to get systems up and running, reaching out to customers, letting people know they were there and that they were open.

“We were just running and building at the same time,” Grant said. She laughs. “It was kind of hysterical and terrifying at the same time.”

So, Spruce reached out to its suppliers. “We talked to restaurants, because [they] were closed... We asked, ‘What do people need?’” Grant said. They talked to local farmers—unsung heroes, she and others call them—to see what they could provide.

And slowly, new ties were formed and a web of people organized around food, working to make sure nobody went hungry and nobody would be forgotten. And they didn’t forget the struggling people. “We very, very intentionally did not carry things over certain price points.”

At Pip Squeak Chapeau, in the same building, the owner was making masks, keeping her seamstresses employed, Grant said. So masks were easily available.

How it works, small scale

Narrowsburg Proper takes phone orders and has curbside pickup.

Spruce customers should call or check the Instagram page to sign up for the list.

The order list goes out on Monday; place your order online. Twice a week they pick up from suppliers. Collect your order at outside pickup. The shop is only open to one customer or one group of three at a time.

Always, everywhere, masks are required.

And even now, when people are back on the streets of Callicoon and grocery store shelves are full again, the bonds Grant and Tew forged with their customers have held. On a sunny day, people wait patiently outside for their turn in the store. Tew dashes out to reassure them: Just a few minutes. What do you need? Here, I’ll bring you a sample.

He stops to talk. Grant calls out names and waves.

It’s a pattern woven in many, many other local stores. Here, we can rely on each other to get through a crisis. We are shopping again, happily, at full-service groceries, but people still visit the smaller stores.

“We have a community. That’s what people want.” Grant thinks a moment. “We can take away food insecurity for folks. We can greet them with the same loving-kindness that we always have.”

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