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More customers, fewer crowds: Corner groceries navigate spike in demand

More customers, fewer crowds: Corner groceries navigate spike in demand

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Anthony Favazza is brand-new to the grocery business, though not to food service. He grew up in his family’s eponymous restaurant on the Hill and has been running Amighetti’s in Rock Hill since 2016.

But the market he assembled inside Amighetti’s dining area? That’s been open a solid two weeks.

Favazza got the idea for dedicating part of his 2,000-square-foot space as a micro-grocery less than a month ago. He was anticipating the ripples from coronavirus-related shutdowns in other cities: restaurants transitioning to takeout only, then shutting their doors and laying off employees.

Groceries have been holding up just fine amid the coronavirus crisis. Better than fine.

“It didn’t make any sense to continue as we were,” Favazza said.

Corner markets have had an influx of customers beyond their neighborhood regulars as people venture out of their homes for meat, bread, snacks and toiletries. Smaller shops are busier but still less crowded than supermarkets, so they seem safer and cleaner, their owners say.

Keeping popular items — toilet paper notwithstanding — on hand is easier because a broader network of vendors allows for more agility; most neighborhood grocers have maintained their regular hours, and some have added products and services, such as preordering and curbside delivery.

After hustling to get permits, Favazza and his staff loaded the market’s shelves with the same Italian staples they use at the restaurant: pasta, ground beef, carrots, giant jars of pepperoncinis. Favazza started baking homemade bread again.

The restaurant side is still doing carryout — toasted ravioli, the famous Amighetti’s poorboy — but it’s the market that is propping up his business now.

“It certainly has made a huge difference,” said Favazza. “It’s helped bridge the gap.”

The unprecedented panic-buying and shortages spurred by coronavirus fears have taken even veteran grocers by surprise.

At LeGrand’s Market & Catering, the old red Tomboy sign still hangs above the dark-green awning, a reminder of the St. Louis Hills landmark that opened in 1936. Hand-lettered posters in the front windows advertise fresh cod fillets and corned beef dinners.

The store’s nostalgic look was reflected in its unhurried pace. Until recently.

“Everything was going at the same time,” said Jim LeGrand Jr., of the onslaught of shoppers that started accelerating in mid-March.

Meat sales doubled. The store stacked pyramids of extra toilet paper onto the Formica kitchen tables they no longer can use for eat-in customers.

LeGrand and his parents, who have owned the market since 1987, installed plexiglass panels in front of the checkout lanes and deli, texted suppliers to keep shelves stocked and invited a local bakery to open a pop-up shop in what had been the dining area.

Like everywhere, cleanliness is top of mind. Even as the store bustles it feels more roomy than having to navigate a cart through the aisles of a supermarket.

“We’re in a really good position here,” said LeGrand. “People have to eat.”

Local Harvest’s business began ramping up about three weeks ago, just after the first COVID-19 case was announced in St. Louis County.

“It feels like triple our normal,” said cashier Kate Griffin. “We have a pretty loyal customer base that comes in pretty often, but we’re getting more new people.”

The Tower Grove South store has stocked gloves, masks and hand sanitizer for customers to use as they shop and is offering curbside pickup. Employees are clocking more hours to keep up with deliveries from their regional suppliers of milk, chicken, cheese and eggs.

Small grocers aren’t immune to the runs on cleaning products and comfort foods that have emptied the shelves of larger stores. But their size, a fraction of the typical 40,000-square-foot chain store, makes them more nimble. And expectations are different. Their customers don’t assume they will see dozens of flavors of yogurt or cutthroat discounts on fruit.

Niche grocers

The Golden Grocer, a Central West End mainstay for 45 years, was one of the first natural-foods markets in the area, known for its bulk spices, herbal teas and “immune boosters” like echinacea and elderberry syrup.

Since the beginning of March, foot traffic has increased, and the average sale per person has almost doubled, founder John LaRico said.

“Everybody and his mother has been coming in,” he said. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”

The pandemic has flipped the sales model for Le Tejana, a grocery, butcher shop and restaurant in Bridgeton.

About two-thirds of its business used to be generated by the restaurant, said co-owner Tony Garcia. Right when the restaurant was forced to switch to takeout and delivery, customers began streaming into the grocery side, wiping it out of rice and snapping up fresh cuts of steak and tablitas.

“I’ve been in the store day and night,” Garcia said. “There’s been an increase of 400%.”

La Tejana has been able to keep well-supplied, with Garcia dipping into the restaurant’s reserves of beans or flour when he needs to.

Tortillas, though, walk out of the store as soon as they hit the shelves.

“Everyone buys the tortillas,” said Garcia. “We can’t keep up.”

Retail stores in the region that are cutting hours or closing due to the coronavirus

Area restaurants that are closing, switching to carryout or otherwise adjusting due to the coronavirus

Fundraising campaigns will benefit artists, restaurant workers in St. Louis

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