by Nigel Dent
OXFORD, Miss. — Since the COVID-19 pandemic has transformed daily life, a typical morning at Chicory Market looks like this: co-owner Kate Bishop or her husband John Martin prints out online orders to prepare for curbside pickup. As workers trickle in between 7 and 8 a.m., personal shoppers fulfill orders as phones start to ring at 8:30. By 10:30, workers are set up in the parking lot to accept walk-up customers. No customers are allowed inside. Between sanitizing the inside of the store twice an hour, stocking, taking deliveries and coordinating with farms and distributors, business bustles until final pick-ups at 6 p.m., after which they deep clean and prepare for the next day.
Supermarket worker deaths from COVID-19 are rising — at least 41, as reported in The Washington Post. According to CNN on April 19, experts recommend that grocery stores ban customers from the inside. Many larger businesses still have not done so. But some smaller, local markets, like Chicory Market, instituted strict curbside pickup as far back as late March.
“It just became clear as the situation evolved,” Bishop said, “that we didn’t feel comfortable opening our doors at all to the public — that we would feel safer, that the staff would be safer and that our customers would be safer if we just limited the transaction to the parking lot.”
As customers cleared out necessary items everywhere when public panic first spiked, Chicory Market experienced similar shortages in tissue, eggs, beef, milk and flour, which eventually leveled off. But being a local market presented a unique advantage to the business. Because their products are mostly fresh and sourced from the surrounding area, they aren’t hindered by extensive supply chains that could have been disrupted due to the virus.
“The benefit of that is that we’re supporting the local economy,” Bishop said, “or supporting our neighbors who are growing and making food… The money stays in the community….”
Chicory Market employees have undergone an interesting change as well. Everyone has taken on a partial-janitorial position, with someone going around every 30 minutes to wipe down handles, cash registers and other surfaces. There is also a tracking log to stay on top of tasks, among wearing masks made by Bishop’s mother and frequently changing gloves.
Workers had the option to temporarily quit too if they feared working during the pandemic because of underlying conditions or wanting to protect their families.
“We’ve been really supportive of them,” Bishop said, “so we’ve taken them off the schedule but guaranteed them their jobs when this is all over and they feel comfortable coming back to work.”
Because of the loss of employees, Bishop sought out to hire more people to handle the stress of increased business, finding several former restaurant workers who were laid off in the Oxford area, such as 22-year-old Juliet Aguerre-Mateo, who was laid off from Saint Leo in March.
“When I found out that we had to go for unemployment,” Aguerre-Mateo said, “I was freaking out… No one really had any answers, and I think that’s the scariest part of it all.” Due to her being a server, she said, the state provided her little unemployment payment.
Fortunately, she was able to make a quick turn around with applying and securing a job at Chicory Market. Aguerre-Mateo said that Oxford’s small community is the best part about it because a good reputation follows good workers, which can be beneficial when looking for another job, especially at this time.
“And I know some people just kind of went in and applied,” Aguerre-Mateo said, “and they’re just so kind there that they want to help everybody… It just worked out in everyone’s favor.” They even have a running joke among the staff that Chicory Market has become a ‘restaurant refugee group.’
Chelsea Brock, 28, held three jobs at Oxford Canteen, The Tarasque and Soulshine Pizza Factory before being furloughed. Technically, she had applied at Chicory Market before being laid off, looking for another job to fill her mornings. Serendipitously, she said, she earned the position just as she needed it.
“Finding another way to fill my time once my regular jobs had temporarily closed or downsized was nothing short of a blessing,” Brock said in an email. “Not working wasn’t an option considering the bills I have to pay every month.”
Bishop also worried about being overwhelmed by online orders. A disadvantage of a smaller and fresh supply chain is limited stock, certain items being easily bought out within hours. However, customers have not only grown but they have also been very supportive during the transition, she said.
Angela Atkins is a Chicory Market customer who has been grateful for access to the market during the pandemic. Atkins, the Digital Giving Officer of the University Development Office at Ole Miss, has been a customer of Chicory Market since before Bishop and Martin bought and renamed it in 2017. She continues to trust them, especially as COVID-19 outbreaks have occurred at processing plants across the country. According to the CDC, 4900 employees at meat processing plants tested positive for the virus.
“[Local sourcing] allows you to bypass some of the national problems,” Atkins said. “…I also feel like that’s a little bit safer, you know? I don’t feel like my food is passed through so many different people.”
Samuel Lisi, an assistant professor of math at Ole Miss, also appreciates how the size of the market lends to its ability to sufficiently socially distance.
“One of the things they do right is that they are small,” Lisi said. “That means that I feel confident that their staff is paying attention to social distancing correctly… I imagine a larger operation as more opportunities for making mistakes.”
The pandemic has given Bishop mixed feelings about the future. She’s anxious about her health and the health of the community, she said. But she’s also excited to form relationships with the new customers who started to frequent the market. She would like to continue curbside pickup even after it is safe to physically shop inside again, noting the convenience it provides people, especially those with limiting health conditions.
The gratitude from her customers keeps her grounded, she said, and being able to continue to support farmers and provide healthy food for the public is rewarding and inspires hope.
“And I don’t know how long we will operate this way,” Bishop said. “I mean, nobody knows, right? But we’re committed to doing it and to figuring it out and to making changes as we need to so that everyone can stay safe.”