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Sonoma County shoppers should expect less variety of foods at grocers months beyond pandemic

It has been a month since an initial wave of panicked shoppers overwhelmed grocery stores amid the onset of the coronavirus pandemic. But local markets are still struggling to keep shelves fully stocked with food.

If there’s no shortage, as grocers and food supply experts insist, why are many items still so difficult to find?

The answer is more complicated than just panic buying or hoarding. With most people stuck at home, shopping habits have changed dramatically. And that’s put a strain on a food supply chain ill-equipped to handle rapid fluctuations in demand of homebound consumers and a store workforce on the front lines of the area outbreak.

“It’s definitely throwing things out of whack,” said Joe Butwill, manager of Pacific Market in Santa Rosa. “The system is not built for everyone to be home baking.”

While hoarding is still an issue for certain products - namely eggs, cleaning products and toilet paper - the overall effect of the distressed supply channels isn’t for the most part widespread food shortages, local grocers say, but it’s less choice on store shelves.

“Selection is varying at our stores delivery by delivery,” said Michael Moody, a grocery buyer for Oliver’s Markets.

Sonoma County grocers and supermarkets have begun to rebound from the crush of shoppers last month. The difficulty now is meeting the demands of customers stockpiling weeks’ worth of food to prepare at home.

During the week of March 16 when county public health officials announced orders to mainly stay at home other than essential errands, total sales at Oliver’s area market locations jumped more than 50% compared with the same week last year, according to the company. Those numbers have retreated as shoppers have filled their pantries. Oliver’s customers, though, are still buying twice as much as usual, in half the number of total trips to the stores.

One of them is Billy Headington of Santa Rosa, who used to stop by the Oliver’s in west Santa Rosa almost daily. Now, he tries to keep it to once a week.

While shoppers like Headington are making fewer trips to buy food, they’re filling shopping carts with much larger quantities of packaged and nonperishable goods, according to a report by market research firm SPINS. That includes pasta, soup, frozen vegetables, packaged meat, as well as staple ingredients flour, eggs and dairy products, thanks in part to an increased interest in home baking during the shutdown.

That means grocers remain relatively well stocked with fresh meat and produce. But they are scrambling to find alternatives for many standby packaged items that continue to sell out quickly.

“Meat, produce, deli, bakery - there’s plenty of food,” Oliver’s buyer Lawrence Jacobs said. “But if you want to go get Campbell’s cream of mushroom soup or chicken noodle, good luck right now.”

The demand spike for those products is putting a crunch on food distributors that supply goods to grocers. They rely on sophisticated computer modeling to plan food deliveries based on what stores expect to sell each day, said Dave Heylen, a vice president with the California Grocers Association.

During disasters like a fire or flood, distributors typically can redirect shipments to affected areas, Heylen said. A viral pandemic, however, presents new challenges.

“What’s unique about this situation is that it’s nationwide, so you can’t pull from anywhere else,” he said.

As food distributors adjust to this new reality, they’ve had to reallocate inventory to ensure grocers receive enough product.

“As a smaller store, I receive less shipments during the week, and I’m getting nowhere near what I’m ordering,” said Butwill, the Pacific Market store manager. Although his recent orders have been significantly fuller than in early March.

If there’s no shortage of food, and people are preparing more of their meals at home since restaurants are closed, it begs the question: Why can’t distributors just reroute deliveries of items like milk and eggs from restaurants to grocery stores?

It’s not that simple, said Amy Cramer, owner of Dairy Delivery, a distributor in Penngrove for stores including Oliver’s and Petaluma Market.

“The supply issue isn’t about the raw material. It’s about packaging and being able to get items processed,” Cramer said.

Restaurant and grocery store deliveries are often funneled through separate food supply chains with different drivers and warehouses. While grocers have been able to buy some food meant for restaurants, it has been complicated by many restaurant suppliers scaling back operations. Meanwhile, grocery distributors like Dairy Delivery are running at capacity and often can’t take on any extra inventory.

Goods sold at grocery stores also require more packaging than bulk foods sold to restaurants, Cramer said. That means if a store is low on sticks of butter, for instance, it’s not necessarily because there’s a shortage of milk. There might actually be a low supply of wrappers.

In addition to sourcing enough packaging, many food manufacturers are struggling to find imported ingredients for items like tomato sauce as global trade slows, grocers say. Some of the food processors are responding by slashing the number of products they’re making.

“We have seen that with a few manufacturers,” Cramer said. “They chose to put on hold some items, feeling it was a better idea to meet demand with high volume (popular) items.”

That is contributing to the smaller selection of products at Sebastopol’s Community Market. The natural grocery store continues to sell out of brands of tofu, oak milk, sausages and bone broth.

Lynette Day, a manager at the Sebastopol Avenue market, said she expects gaps to remain on store shelves for the foreseeable future. Even after stay-at-home directives are loosened and eventually lifted, she wouldn’t be surprised if people’s voracious shopping habits continue as food distribution channels lag.

“For us, it seems like the new normal,” Day said. “I’m not sure customers really realize that this is going to go on longer than just through the end of April.”

Actually, the Sonoma County public health emergency order to isolate at home runs through at least May 3.

Perhaps a more existential threat to the food supply chain going forward is the effect of the coronavirus on the food industry’s labor force.

Last week, a meatpacking plant in South Dakota, which supplies up to 5% of the country’s pork, shut down after hundreds of workers contracted COVID-19. Plants in Colorado, Pennsylvania, Mississippi and elsewhere also have reportedly had outbreaks.

And on Wednesday, a warehouse worker at a food distribution center in Tracy for supermarket giant Safeway died after multiple employees tested positive for the virus. That warehouse in the San Joaquin Valley is still operational with reduced staff, but produce shortages have been reported at Safeway stores throughout the Bay Area.

Across the country, meanwhile, more than 30 grocery store workers have died from the infectious disease, according to the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union.

Local grocers say they haven’t been directly hurt by worker illnesses. Still, they have taken extra precautions such as providing workers with masks, gloves and cleaning supplies and requiring social distancing. To further ensure the safety of store workers and shoppers, some grocers are limiting the number of shoppers allowed inside food stores at one time and asking customers to make weekly grocery shopping trips, instead of going one day and returning the next to look for items out of stock the day before.

“That puts our employees at risk and puts the greater public at risk,” said Moody of Oliver’s. “People have to be mindful when they’re shopping and realize it’s not going to magically appear out of the back room the next morning.”

You can reach Staff Writer Ethan Varian at ethan.varian@pressdemocrat.com or at 707-521-5412.

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