Why It’s Important to Support Independent Grocers and Specialty Food Shops Right Now

These small businesses are the heartbeat of many neighborhoods. Here’s how you can help them right now.

December 21, 2020

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Photo by: ANGELA WEISS/Getty Images


Baltimore’s specialty food makers and retailers have been selling their products at shops inside Belvedere Square Market since the 1980s. For the past seven years, Jinji Fraser, owner of Pure Chocolate by Jinji, has been one of them.

“The market is a place that’s alive, where you expect bustling energy. You hear the clangs of pans and people talking and kids running around. That's what we've been used to,” Fraser said. When governors around the country began issuing the first stay-at-home orders in March, the market stopped allowing shoppers inside. That changed after safety measures were put in place, but the energy of the community, Fraser said, “just never returned. It's a whole different landscape.”

That’s because since the start of the pandemic, instead of visiting local shops, many more people are buying groceries online or consolidating grocery trips, leading to more dollars flowing to mass supermarkets. Meanwhile, a September Yelp report found more than 30,000 retail businesses, which includes grocers, have closed since March — at least 58 percent of them permanently.

Although small food retailers and independent grocers are fighting to stay afloat during these tough times, supporting these small businesses right now can make a real difference.

Small food retailers support communities — even during the pandemic.

Whether it’s a big city or a small town, independent food retailers are uniquely embedded in the places they operate, said Tammie Hetrick, president and CEO of Washington State Food Industry Association, which represents the interests of independent grocers and convenience stores in Washington state. “Many times, the owners or the main people working there live in the same communities, so they really have a vested interest in that community,” she said.

In New York City, bodegas (or corner stores) are part of the essential fabric of neighborhoods, and many provided residents with essentials in the spring when grocery store shelves were bare. (But hundreds have since closed due to a drop in deli sales.) When big grocers ran out of meat in some parts of the country, small butcher shops like Primal Supply Meats in Philadelphia and Publican Quality Meats in Chicago kept cases stocked and shifted sales online.

“For us, it was just a matter of always staying open, because that was the original purpose ... to be open for the community,” said Rachel Krupa, of her shop The Goods Mart, a health-conscious convenience store in New York City’s Soho. “Early on, with our customers, we were often the only people that they saw other than who they were living with. So you got to have such amazing conversations about what it’s been like for everyone else.” MTA bus drivers started coming in for coffee because nearby coffee shops were shuttered. She co-hosted Jamaican cookouts on the street outside after learning that her UPS driver was a master chef with a killer jerk chicken recipe. And she donated healthy snacks to nearby hospitals to keep healthcare workers fueled.

Still, with workers and tourists at home, foot traffic in Soho is almost non-existent. Krupa has an understanding landlord who’s willing to be flexible during the pandemic, but she’s still has to cut her staff and work many shifts on her own.” “We want to stay open for the customers that need us,” she said, “but we're making probably 25 percent of what we were making before.”

The challenges small grocers face now are endless.

In cities, purchases from passersby are gone, but rural stores have lost shoppers, too. Point Roberts, Washington is right on the Canadian border and depends on travelers. Since the pandemic, Hetrick said business at a local grocery called Red Apple Market has been devastated because due to lack of travel this year. While that’s an extreme example, stores across the state are struggling. “My independent grocers average a one percent profit margin in good years, and right now many of them are reporting that they're lucky if they’re at a half percent profit margin,” she said, “and a lot of labor costs have increased.”

Red Apple Market and other grocers have also had to shut down salad and hot food bars while at the same time attempting to meet demand for more ready-to-eat foods for quick meals at home and other shifts in shopper habits. Some have set up online ordering and curbside pick-up, but Hetrick said it’s difficult for them to compete with mass retailers.

Fraser initiated online ordering over the summer, started a subscription program, and just launched nationwide chocolate shipping in time for the holidays. But she said over the long-term, her business, which is focused on selling a truly unique product, really relies on the connections made in the small retail environment. “We learned very quickly that the way that our business is structured has never been and I don't think really will ever be really suitable for that type of customer interfacing,” she said. “It demands a much more intimate interaction.”

Not only are intimate interactions gone, but so are impulse purchases. Think about how a visit to a local bakery for a simple loaf of bread ends up leading to the irresistible purchase of fresh focaccia, too. Or how while you’re “just” grabbing ricotta at the Italian deli, you end up with olives and a package of prosciutto in your basket.


Photo by: Bloomberg/Getty Images

Bloomberg/Getty Images

How you can support small food retailers now.

If artisan chocolate shops, small bakeries, butcher shops and independent grocers and bodegas matter to you, there are some things you can do to help these businesses out.

First, the most obvious: If you’re able to get out and safely shop in-person, visit these retailers and buy things. Many are smaller than big box grocery chains and therefore will involve exposure to fewer people.

Next, be kind, even if things take longer than you’d like or it’s hard to hear an employee through their mask. “This pandemic has really caused a lot of anxiety and frustration, but don't take it out on those workers, because they've been there day in and day out, making sure those shelves are stocked and that people have what they need,” Hetrick said.

If you’d rather stay home, look up your favorite specialty shop or independent grocer and see if they’re offering online sales with pick-up or delivery. To go even further, if you’ve heard about an interesting shop that’s far away from you, look it up and see if they’re offering nationwide shipping. Many now are. Fraser is now shipping her chocolates all over the US. The Goods Mart now creates and ships curated snack boxes, many of which have deeper purpose, like a Black-Founded Box. They make great gifts, too, for friends and family you can’t share a meal with in-person this year.

“I think it's just a matter of doing what feels right,” said Krupa, “and not only what's convenient.”

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