Small F.C. Grocers Endure Covid-19 Struggles Unlike Larger Chains

Culmore Supermarket has limited and marked up its exotic produce, like dragonfruit, due to those same supply challenges. (Photo: News-Press)

Fears of catching the novel coronavirus have caused mask-clad runs for groceries to replace trips to a favorite restaurant or bar for a bite to eat. But the prosperous past six months that major chain grocery stores have enjoyed is only somewhat on par with the experience of mom-and-pop grocers, who have wrestled with finicky supply chains and hold mixed views of how they’ll emerge from the pandemic.

“This is worse than pre-pandemic,” Alex Lee, owner of the Culmore Supermarket said of his current revenues. “And before [the pandemic], I’ve never had such a good business.”

Lee owns the grocery store, along with a few neighboring spots in Culmore, such as Taco Ssam, but said that his revenues have shrunk in the tens of thousands since the boosted unemployment benefits expired on July 31.
In his talks with other small grocers as close as Seven Corners and as far as Alexandria, he said it’s been a growing pattern they’ve all seen in their day-to-day operations.

It’s a sharp reversal from the challenges Lee was experiencing when the virus came to the front of everyone’s mind in the spring.

Then, he said, the store could hardly keep even its least popular items on its shelves. It was a good problem to have when everything from the typically undesirable Campbell’s Cream of Mushroom soup to pasta and frozen foods had been cleaned out by customers.

Rosa Susinski, owner of Plaza Latina Market in Idylwood, noticed much of the same activity in her small shop.

Certain dairy products were hard to come by, and they also had to scrap to get pork for the chorizo made in the store’s popular butcher shop.

“We have come a long way from the beginning of all this,” Susinski said. “March, April and May were hard for us to get merchandise.”

A large part of both of their struggles comes from negotiating directly with international suppliers. Susinski, for example, said that beans from El Salvador were difficult to acquire, and sometimes shipments of rice would get held up in Miami, pinching Plaza’s tiny supply even more.

Some of the more exotic fruits that Culmore Supermarket provides were cut back on by Lee, such as dragonfruit, which jumped from $3.49 per pound to $5.49 per pound once the pandemic set in.

Other times the prices for his produce became so high that he had no choice but to stop stocking it; for instance, the Salvadoran edible herb, loroco, cost $4.99 per pound pre-pandemic and rocketed to $10.99 per pound as the virus spread. He also dropped special seafood, such as red snapper and octopus.

Gotta-have-it items like toilet paper and hand sanitizer were obtained either at high costs or through hardball tactics.

Susinski couldn’t believe that her customers were purchasing small bottles of hand sanitizer at marked up prices of $16.99.

And Lee said when he couldn’t get toilet paper through his primary source, his secondary sources would offer him a solid deal but force him to make a decision on the spot — what he jokingly referred to as “mafia style.”

BUOYED BY ITS popular butcher, Plaza Latina Market has been able to embrace the positives Covid-19 has brought the grocery industry once it got its supply chains under control. (Photo: News-Press)

The intricacies handled by local shop owners are spread among the leadership of corporate grocery chains, and that’s helped make the past six months one of the most lucrative times for these businesses.

The Kroger Co., which is the parent company of Harris Teeter, reported that its profits tripled in the second quarter of this year, according to the Cincinnati Enquirer.

Aldi’s U.S. CEO Jason Hart told Supermarket News that Covid-19 hasn’t slowed its growth in the states at all, with its plans to become the third-largest grocery retailer by the end of 2022 still intact.

And Giant Foods was doing so well, according to DCist, that it gave employees a 10 percent bump in weekly pay throughout the region until lockdowns ended in early June.

It’s no different within the City of Falls Church. The Commissioner of the Revenue’s office reported that the four major grocery stores in the City — which include Harris Teeter, Aldi, Giant and Good Fortune Supermarket in the Eden Center — were up 33 percent in year-to-date revenue from Jan. – July 2019 to Jan. – July 2020.

Overall, grocery stores in the City are up nearly $560,000 over their 12 month average.

Tom Clinton, the City’s Commissioner of Revenue, said that it was encouraging to see none of the stores were cannibalizing each other, with their respective clientele’s remaining loyal. And at a big picture level, the revenues brought in by the over-achieving grocery stores has helped lessen the pain of money lost from hotel, retail and meals taxes.

At the small business level, it’s been a split. Susinski said that after getting over early troubles with the supply chain, the store has been doing great in terms of revenue. She credited the store’s butcher shop for giving it an appeal that extends from outside of just local Latinos to all kinds of nearby residents. And as Virginia climbed up from Phase One to Two to now Three, it allowed her to welcome a more normal amount of customers to her store.

“We were letting someone in, then letting someone out, and then locking the door,” Susinski said. “It was only 6-8 people at a time — it was nuts…Just keeping everybody clean and healthy, that was a challenge in the beginning.”

Lee, however, is still concerned about what’s to come given the blue-collar pocket of the world his store serves.

And with school starting, he’s afraid that parents with jobs that can’t be done remotely will have to forgo work to stay home with young children (in Fairfax County, children 13 and under cannot be left alone for more than three hours.)

How that is already affecting his patrons’ buying decisions gives him some anxiety. Lee expects that the collective slimming down budget-wise as well as in peoples’ social life will also negate any jolt in holiday spending that comes from entertaining large gatherings.

He’s bracing for a harrowing upcoming stretch.

“My neighborhood is 22041. We’re no 22180.” Lee said, referencing the socioeconomic differences between Bailey’s Crossroads, where his store is located, and Vienna, where he lives. “No matter what, January, February [and] March are slow, with or without coronavirus. That’s jobs, that’s whatever. Because of the weather, there’s no landscaping, no construction, all that’s gone. My customers are those kind of hard laborers, so then what?”