‘We cry and we laugh’ – Reno’s locally-owned grocers adapting in time of need
RENO, Nev. — “I’ve cried a lot,” Amber Sallaberry says. “We’ve all cried a lot.”
“We cry and we laugh … and we cry and we laugh.”
It’s a Tuesday evening in late April and Sallaberry, co-founder and general manager of the Great Basin Community Food Co-op, is recounting the emotional rollercoaster her and the co-op’s staff have been riding since the coronavirus pandemic took hold in Northern Nevada.
The COVID crisis has rocked the global food supply chain, leading to disruptions and shortages in greater Reno-Sparks and beyond. Not to mention, according to multiple media outlets, an increasing number of workers nationwide are contracting COVID-19 in meat processing plants, warehouses and grocery stores.
With some exception, the region’s big-box grocery stores, following an initial wave of panic purchasing, have been able to keep their shelves well stocked with essentials.
Smaller, locally-owned grocers are also keeping business afloat by maintaining supply lines with local farms and vendors, and finding innovative ways to accommodate shopping trends shaped by the state shutdown.
Not to mention, these grocers have enhanced their sanitization guidelines and practices, equipped employees with masks and gloves, and implemented store restrictions to appease social distancing requirements.
CATERING TO CONSUMERS
For Great Basin Community Food Co-op, set on the corner of Court and Flint streets in downtown Reno, it has been a lot to take in and undertake. Hence, Sallaberry and her team’s frequent tears and laughs.
“It’s been exhausting and kind of stressful,” said Sallaberry, noting the co-op did not see a surge of consumers until a few days after the big-box stores were blitzed. “We just thought, oh, we must not have that demographic. And then, sure enough, we were just like three days behind.
“I’ve never seen anything like that in 15 years — lines wrapped around multiple aisles.”
In response, the co-op has shifted its operations, sometimes daily. Perhaps the biggest adjustment, Sallaberry said, was converting its grocery database into an online store, enabling customers to place orders from home and pick them up curbside.
“Usually that’s a project you work on for months and months, and we grinded a way and launched it in like seven days between four of us,” she said of the store’s small staff. “We were all walking computer-zombies.”
The Urban Market, a grocery store tucked on 3rd Street in downtown Reno, added curbside pick-up to its services as well, said owner Denise Barcomb.
She said the store has seen an uptick in customers calling and reaching out through social media to ask if certain products are in stock.
“If we do, they’re delighted,” she said. “If we don’t, we resource it so we can have it for them. That response means a lot to those folks, because now they don’t have to get in the car, drive, expose themselves, and reverse that whole process.”
Outside of adding curbside pickup pick-up, the Urban Market has not had to drastically change its business model, Barcomb said. Moreover, the store has kept its shelves stocked, leaning on its more than 50 local vendors.
“What has been our strength is we do source from a lot of different places in order to get our product,” Barcomb said. “And because we support and source locally, our local suppliers have been killer. They have kept us in business with inventory. It’s been great.”
Sallaberry echoes Barcomb’s sentiment, rattling off a laundry list of farmers who “came through” for the co-op — from Sandhill Dairy (milk and cream) to Holley Family Farm (beef and pork) to Dayton Valley Aquaponics (tomatoes and eggs), and many more.
“They’re actually the heroes of this,” she said. “Without Northern Nevada farmers, we would’ve been up s–t creek like every other grocery store. I think that’s actually why we got a ton of business, because we were able to stay stocked.”
RISE IN REVENUE
As a result, throughout the COVID pandemic, both the Great Basin co-op and Urban Market, unlike many small businesses in the area, have seen increases in revenue.
Barcomb said her store’s revenue has been steadily up 10% to 15% compared to last year. This boost comes despite the fact the market, which is surrounded by downtown Reno’s closed casino properties, does not have any tourists coming through its doors.
“A lot of our business last year was from tourism,” she said. “But, with that gone, now the business we’re seeing are our neighbors.”
Meanwhile, Sallaberry said the co-op’s revenue has been “insanely up,” growing 52% in March compared to last year, despite having to consolidate its kitchen, café, bakery and juice bar due to the virus.
All told, while Sallaberry enjoys the boost in business, it’s a fact that has left her with a bittersweet taste in her mouth.
“I feel bad because so many of my friends and peers, their lives are destroyed,” she said. “They’ve lost all of their savings, they’re out of business, they’re not going to reopen.”
Which is why both businesses are working especially hard to provide food and supplies to community members that make conscious efforts to forgo the big-box stores and instead support the small, independent grocers.
“It’s been incredible to see the tenacity of our team,” Sallaberry said. “And how much everyone is down for the cause and totally willing to work 15-18 hour days if that’s what needs to happen.
“I don’t know that at a traditional corporation you would have people give what I’ve seen my team give over the last six weeks. It’s powerful. It’s been powerful to watch, it’s been powerful to be a part of.”
Heather Ashbridge, who started with Nevada State Development Corporation in 2008, previously served in several roles with the organization, including assistant vice president and loan officer. She is based in NSDC’s Reno office.