STATEN ISLAND, N.Y. — The pandemic might have been the best thing to happen to the grocery store experience. Personally speaking, I have never found shopping so convenient. But for the shopper and shop owner, this COVID-19 crisis has put us through quite an ordeal just to get to this most efficient highpoint in the land of markets.
In this food service diary, together we’ve documented the yeast shortage in the Northeast, toilet paper runs and subsequent toilet bowl backups, a reliance on the local deli for groceries and a massive shift in consumer demand — and therefore supply — thanks to a thoroughly terrified eating audience. We’ve seen Michelin-noted Vinum restaurant in Stapleton and Reggiano’s pizzeria in Tottenville change gears with paper goods, cleaning supplies and pantry items sold alongside their regular, prepared menu items.
Yes, ladies and gentlemen, it’s been a strange and germ-conscious ride so far.
At what seemed like the worst of the pandemic back in March, Staten Islanders turned to smaller grocers who managed to keep up with demand. Shelves at Frank and Sal’s in Great Kills, for instance, featured a vast selection of meats and cleaning supplies, even when those items proved scarce in the larger markets.
My neighborhood pork store, Santino’s, went from being a fairly sleepy Italian deli to a now booming operation. With streamlined hours still in September — another phenomenon of the pandemic — the West Brighton shop has been so busy that customers will call in orders about an hour in advance just avoid a line. Santino’s also does a brisk business catering since the pandemic with drive-by parties and smaller gatherings held at home.
Indeed, now we’re looking at a smaller window of time for shopping at stores like Pastosa. The West Brighton operation now closes on Mondays. At the same time, ShopRite remains the only store open 24 hours. That format was upended for a while as the grocer was overwhelmed with shoppers panicked over the food supply shutting down. Who’s up for a 1 a.m. supermarket run? (I am!) See? You can’t appreciate freedoms like that until they are taken away.
Top Tomato in Great Kills and Rosebank plus Market Fresh in Rosebank have jumped whole-heartedly into the free curbside pickup and doorstep service game. And those are quite popular ways to shop, according to store owners.
Olive Tree Marketplace in Sunnyside takes orders by email — [email protected] — or by phone call to the store.
STABILIZED MARKETS AND APPRECIATING THE LITTLE GUYS
While things like yeast, flour and cleaning products are back in ample supply, grocers still note shortages here and there.
“For the first time since the pandemic they shipped me two cases of Lysol. We basically gave it to our best customers. It’s still a shortage. Everything else mostly came back to normal,” said David Shehadeh, owner of the North Shore Olive Tree. He said pricing on meats and eggs has stabilized. Just about six months ago, he pointed out, processing plants had shut and workers weren’t showing up to keep production moving.
Shehadeh said, “We got a lot of new customers in. But a lot of customers went back to their old ways with Whole Foods, Amazon and the big guys. I just wish people would support their local businesses. We need their back, too. All those big chains weren’t shipping in the pandemic or there was a big delay.” The smaller guys were the ones who filled a big void in this town, he maintained.
Ramee Othman of Market Fresh said, “The only shortages are Lysol spray and wipes. Customer are back to their normal routines.” Yet he’s won over a number of fans over the pandemic thus far, patrons who have made the store part their normal routines.
Tom Beyar of Beyar’s Market in Willowbrook said, “You might not see that there are shortages but there are. The challenge is to the supermarket but we have to research what’s in stock. It’s a lot of work.” Beyar patrolled the regions’ Restaurant Depots and culled from restaurant suppliers in order to stock his shelves. He was delighted to offer a continuous feeding of paper towels and TP since February.
“Napkins. We have a napkin shortage,” said Beyar. He suspects this is because paper companies have shifted over to making paper towels to keep up supply. Beyar also brought to light a dearth of soups, taco mixes and gravies. He’s noticed that Campbell’s and Progresso don’t have the varieties they used to.
“It’s a challenge to get different items. A lot of these items are hit or miss,” said Beyar — like Clorox brand of bleach. He spotted it at Costco and just started restocking the label
“We can’t order more than five cases per item. If everybody ordered it the warehouse would get depleted. Everybody’s reaching into the same pool of items,” said Beyar.
At Met Foods in Castleton Corners and Grasmere, one can call the store, put her name on “the list,” then get a call back later in the day for the order and receive free, same-day pickup or delivery. The pickup arrangement I’ve found particularly useful because the Met staff offers to bring the goods to the parking lot and even put the groceries in the trunk of the car. You can’t get more efficient than that. In the journeys of bringing my boys back and forth to practices and baseball games in the nether regions of the Island I don’t even have to stop the car to pick up the groceries.
Keep in touch.
Pamela Silvestri is Advance Food Editor. She can be reached at [email protected].