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Niwot Market weathers coronavirus storm


March 25, 2020 | View PDF

Jocelyn Rowley

Ten days later, the produce section at Niwot Market has been replenished since the first wave of "panic buying" hit the store on March 12, but other aisles still showed signs of the frenzy.

On March 12, escalating efforts by state and school officials to stop the spread of COVID-19 touched off a "panic buying" spree at Niwot Market that left several shelves bare and sent some longtime customers away in frustration. But owners Bert and Alison Steele are seeing hopeful signs that the initial shock has abated and operations at the town's 18-year-old independent grocery store will soon be back to normal-or whatever passes for that these days.

"The question I'm always getting is, are we going to close, and the answer to that would be no," Alison said. "We have no intention of closing whatsoever. I also get the question, will the food supply chain shut down, and I don't think that will happen."

But it could be disrupted for a few more weeks, the Steeles warned, so shoppers might have to adjust their habits and expectations. The store has trimmed its hours, closed its dining areas, and has less staff than usual, as some employees are opting to stay away from public places. Additionally, Bert and Alison are also still dealing with shortages caused by a throng of frenzied customers fearful of a prolonged quarantine.

"It was just pure madness," Alison said. "People just started hoarding toilet paper, and the cleaning supplies, canned food, frozen food. At first, nobody was buying produce, but then people just started buying everything, and we're little, and we didn't have time to react. So we just started limiting things-take two, take this. People from all over were coming-there were a lot of people I didn't recognize, anyway. It was just crazy."

As the week went on, and area restaurants were shuttered, the Market's inventory of staples also started to decline, presumably as families reacquainted themselves with their ovens and stoves.

"You can see that they're cooking more by what they're buying," Bert said. "Things that store, like carrots, onions, potatoes, yams. Broth is hard to come by, both beef broth and chicken broth."

There was also a run on flour, spurred by a trend Bert hopes will stick around after the crisis.

"Years ago people used to bake all the time, and it kind of went away," he said. "Now you can tell they're baking. Yeast is something that almost didn't sell at all, but now we're having trouble getting it."

The Market is also experiencing shortages of over-the-counter cold and flu medications, as well as supplements that purport to prevent illness, such as Emergen-C. Bert said it's also been difficult to get yogurt and organic produce, but other items, notably eggs, are already back in stock.

"I think it's starting to calm down," he said. "Our industry's really efficient, so this deal, once we get the pipelines full, we'll be back to normal."

Longtime customers have noticed the crowded aisles and long lines at the Market's registers, but so far, it hasn't affected the quality of the service, according to Niwot resident Kathy Koehler.

"It was busier than I anticipated, but staples and some fresh items that I had run out of were stocked," she said. "I have heard from neighbors that they were so glad to be able to order a sandwich as a treat for themselves-it felt 'normal' to order a sandwich at the deli. I hope locals will go there and support the Market during this time instead of going to Longmont, Gunbarrel or Boulder because these folks are Niwot residents and are sacrificing their health to stay open for us to have some normalcy in our lives."

Bert and Alison expect much of the depleted inventory to be replenished in the coming days, but customers might not see some of their favorites back on shelves until the Market's vendors adapt to the spike in demand.

"There is a lot of food, but people maybe won't get their exact brand for a while," Alison said. "Our suppliers are overwhelmed with orders that are 200 times what they've been doing, and they can't get us what we normally get. Or, our trucks have been super late because they're loading triple of what they're normally loading. So people think that everything is out, but it's not, it's just delayed."

Some of that delay has been due to the unpredictable service from their large suppliers, as they prioritize large chain stores, such as Whole Foods and King Soopers. Some have delivered only partial orders, while others have cancelled outright, leaving Bert and Alison scrambling.

"We're finding that the smaller vendors are helping us, and the bigger vendors have priorities," Bert said, citing Yoder Farms, an Amish egg supplier from Iowa. "I think when this is over, we're going to be buying from smaller guys as much as we can, because they're trying to help us, so we're going to stick with them."

Despite the upheaval, Bert and Alison said that shoppers have been largely good-natured and generous, if not always local. "It started out a little grumpy, but then it got to where everyone was really understanding," Bert said. "The hardest thing for me was that there were so many people coming from out of town, and the Niwot people weren't getting their stuff. That was discouraging, but there was nothing I could do about it."

Jocelyn Rowley

Cleaning supplies were among the first to go after coronavirus shut-downs caused a spree of "panic buying" at Niwot Market starting on March 12.

As for shoppers who don't want to venture out in public, the Market is offering curbside pick-up and limited delivery. The Steeles have also heard from many customers offering to deliver groceries or even shop for elderly or isolated members of the community. But Alison also had some simpler advice.

"People are always asking what they can do, and I would say just be patient and kind."

Though both Bert and Alison are optimistic, they admitted that it's hard to predict with much certainty what will happen in the coming week. However, both were confident in their industry's ability to adapt to this unprecedented challenge.

"We're working against big towns, and I don't know what all the problems are, but I think it will slowly start getting fixed," Bert said. "I think it's all going to work out. It's all going to slowly rebuild."


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