Friday, June 05, 2020

The kosher markets that got residents through Pesach this year were truly operating in uncharted territory. Supplies were ordered and re-ordered from swamped vendors for anxious customers. New workplace sanitation rules affected everyone’s job. Demand for delivery exploded. For many, if not all, Jewish homemakers, Pesach was made possible by all the grocery store employees who pitched in, worked tirelessly and fought back against worries for their own safety and thoughts of their families at home.

At Teaneck’s Glatt Express, Dani Secemski hired an additional 20 people to fill orders, drive vans and stock shelves, including college students and former restaurant managers. “The whole staff is phenomenal—we all worked 60-70 hours a week.” His family is pitching in, too. Secemski’s brother Moshe, who works in finance, is now working from home, which has enabled him to come in every day to help.

Although the Pesach rush has ended, the demand is ongoing, and Secemski is trying to expand by getting more vans and staff people. But at this point it’s more under control, he noted. Products are coming in and shelves are getting stocked. There is still a shortage of cleaning supplies, however, as vendors are prioritizing hospitals and limiting how many items to send to each store, sometimes parceling out an order over several weeks.

Employees are doing what they can to stay safe and help customers. “Everyone is stepping up,” said Secemski. “They’re taking orders for elderly customers over the phone and some are crying to us. We’re here to help them out.” Gloved and masked drivers are bringing boxes they deliver as close as they can for the older, less mobile customers. “Everyone here is going above and beyond, risking their health for the greater community. Thank you.”

At Cedar Market, Yossi Hollander knew he had to take action as soon as the virus outbreak in New Rochelle was announced. “We realized we had to make immediate changes… Our communities are very intertwined,” he said. The store began ordering cleaning products and instituting new protocols to keep employees and customers safe. N95 masks were ordered for employees. Items like sanitizers were purchased to wipe down carts. A disinfectant company sanitized the store and staff were trained in proper sanitation techniques to implement repeatedly throughout the day. A system was put in place to limit the number of customers at any one time, with each one given a sticker showing the time their 20 minutes of shopping would end. If a customer
needed more time, they could check out, put their order in the car, and come back for a new ticket. “We had a constant flow in and out,” said Hollander.

At Cedar, processes were tweaked as the situation unfolded. In the first few days of the stay-at-home/self-quarantine order in Teaneck, when delivery orders skyrocketed, changes were made to enable everyone to get their order. “Eighty to 90% of our customers were asking for deliveries.” The store had to introduce cut-off times for deliveries and stop making them to communities outside the immediate area. Pick-up orders were canceled. The phone system was shut down, but that made communication more efficient—customers could contact the store through email and social media messaging. “I see what’s going on,” said Hollander. “I get every customer’s message and I or someone on staff answers every customer. Without the phones ringing, it created more normalcy.” Every delivery customer got a call about their order if substitutions were needed, or to explain what would be missing.

The shelves were stocked, cash registers rang and deliveries were made by hiring extra staff, renting vans and retraining staff who had to step into new job roles. “We had to take cashiers and train them how to shop, handle orders—things they weren’t doing,” said Hollander. “People on the phones with customers became operations people, checking with departments to answer questions about their orders. It was a team effort, from the people doing purchasing to the guy doing sanitation for the store.”

Hollander was effusive in his praise. “There are no words for me to express my thanks to all the employees who stepped up to the plate and gave 110%,” he said. “Everyone came to work with a smile. There are always hiccups, but as a team we addressed everything and fixed issues. The dedication from every staff member was incredible. We knew we were all in it together. Our team came out of this stronger. We act as a group and look out for each other. I can’t even explain the gratitude I have.”

Hollander is also thankful for the good relationships he has with many vendors. “The food industry as a whole went through a lot to eliminate challenges and have products flow into the market,” he said. “What we did for customers, our suppliers did for us.” Ordering from vendors pre-Pesach was very different this year. Usually, people stop ordering chametz a few weeks before Pesach. This year, families at home with kids out of school were ordering both—food for everyone sheltering in place and Pesach supplies to put away. Many had expected to go away for Pesach and suddenly had to plan and order for a holiday at home—some for the first time.”

Now the Pesach rush is over, but the chametz rush is on; everyone wants cereals, pastas and bread. “We have hundreds of different vendors on a daily basis. We’re breaking down doors, doing whatever we can to get customers the products they want,” said Hollander. “We buy produce directly from the big Hunt’s Point market in New York. In the beginning, there were shortages, but now that has leveled out.”

Until just before Pesach, Aron’s West Orange had staff, including new staff hired just for this purpose, working from 6 p.m. until midnight to take online orders for the next day. After a break, they started up again on Monday, April 20. “I have a very good staff; I’m very happy,” said store manager Lazer Stern. “Everyone did the best they can. It’s a great team, lots of positive vibes.” Stern understands that from the customer perspective, it was frustrating to not be able to get everything they wanted. Not being on the front lines in the industry, customers could not get a full picture of the situation. Stern said the prices of many items, like eggs, went up. Empire Poultry was closed due to a COVID-related issue. The distributors were not all prepared for the rush, especially with so many people unexpectedly home for Pesach due to the pandemic. “We tried to please customers, offering substitutes, and made sure they were treated well.” Internally, the departments helped each other, which made the store run smoothly.

Stern appreciates all the good customer feedback he’s getting. “It really helps keep the momentum going,” he said.

Yitzy Elbaum, director of culinary operations for Grand & Essex, worked from early morning until late at night in the days leading to Pesach, like much of the staff. “We had a mission to serve the community and we’re proud of what we accomplished, but it was overwhelming,” he said. Getting all that food to customers, along with orders from throughout the store, was a Herculean effort that involved repurposing some workers and hiring temporary staff. The goal was to make all the day’s deliveries by midnight, but sometimes drivers were on the road until 3 a.m.

Yossi Spitz, general manager, added, “I’m blessed to have such an amazing team of workers.” Spitz said the owners frequently brought in meals from local restaurants for the staff, even though there was plenty of food at the store. “They wanted to show appreciation for our workers, who were working long days, and also help local restaurants, who are hurting right now.”

Mali Baer, director of marketing and customer care, got her family involved in the process. Her husband, Brent, came in to help organize and deliver orders. Avi, her son who had to return early from his gap year in Israel, brought in a friend and together they packed and delivered orders. “He masked up and gloved up and worked 15 hours straight,” she said. “His home quarantine had just ended. It was a good way for him to get out in society again, and be part of this effort.”

By Bracha Schwartz