Can a volunteer-run grocery store successfully work through the pandemic?
After having to close its doors in 2018 with an eye towards an eventual relocation, a south Minneapolis grocer with a staff largely made up of volunteers is finally on the way to doing business again, but the grocery landscape it is returning to is much different than the one it left.
The retailer, called Good Grocer, plans to reopen in a 9,000-square-foot location, twice as large as its initial incarnation, which it had to close due to the expansion of an interstate highway, according to the Star Tribune. Before closing, the grocer was operating with around 90 percent of its staff as volunteers. The staff, which handles cashier, bagging, cleaning and stocking duties, was asked to work 2.5 hours per month in exchange for a 20 percent discount on groceries. Good Grocer has recruited 400 volunteers so far for the coming new location with an eventual goal of recruiting hundreds more.
Requesting that loyal customers volunteer to work at the grocery store is, however, a bigger imposition than it would have been just 11 months ago. With the novel coronavirus pandemic still raging and newly emerging, faster-spreading variants causing experts consternation, there are still potential health risks attached to staying inside grocery stores for an extended period of time.
While masking has become standard operating procedure for U.S. grocery staff, workers in the channel demonstrate a higher-than average rate of asymptomatic COVID-19 infection. A recent Wall Street Journal article points out that the nation continues to experience grocery store-related COVID-19 outbreaks and serious tragedies surrounding them.
As for the use of volunteer workers in the pandemic-era, one of the U.S.’s most talked about volunteer-reliant co-op grocers, the Park Slope Food Co-op in Brooklyn, had its business model, temporarily rattled by the pandemic, according to an April, 2020 GrubStreet article. The co-op, notoriously draconian about members attending to their shifts, suspended its 17,000 members from working when Gov. Cuomo announced that non-essential staff should stay home. The co-op brought in 55 temporary employees to handle operational duties.
- Good Grocer to reopen volunteer-powered grocery store in south Minneapolis – Star Tribune
- Grocery workers continue to be at high risk from COVID-19 – RetailWire
- Covid Wears on, Essential Workers Carry on: ‘Everybody Forgets That You’re Still on the Front Line’ – The Wall Street Journal
- Can the Park Slope Food Coop Survive? – GrubStreet
DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: What new challenges do you see for grocery operations that utilize volunteers, given the variety of safety concerns brought about by COVID-19? Do you see such community-based stores becoming more popular than they have been or will the risks posed by the pandemic prevent people from taking part?