Upgrading During Downtime: A General Manager’s Stewardship During COVID and Beyond

January 13th 2021

by Tony White – General Manager, Skagit Valley Food Co-op, WA

(Note: Tony originally wrote this letter “mid-pandemic” to inform his community about the capital improvements the store was undertaking during his first year there as General Manager. Provender shares it as an example of how a GM successfully used 2020’s downturn and downtime to upgrade store offerings and be better prepared for stewarding the Co-op’s future.

Dear Skagit Valley Food Co-op Members & Shoppers,

I wanted to take some time to let you all know that even in the midst of this wild year, our Co-op is healthy and strong. We are fortunate to be a financially sound and stable organization able to withstand the many uncertainties businesses are facing during this pandemic. Although sales are down slightly from the year before, they remain steady. In fact, the majority of our sales decline is a result of temporarily closing our Third Street Cafe and the reduction of Deli offerings in our store.

Thank you for the continued support you’ve shown toward your Co-op over these past months. It has been a stressful, challenging time being in the midst of a worldwide pandemic. Many places are at least partially shut down, and others are struggling to reopen safely.

I think the uncertainty surrounding coronavirus has been the hardest thing to handle. With so much sensational COVID-19 news dominating the headlines, it is easy to live our lives fearful of what is around the corner. Living with this fear has brought a lot of tension to our daily routine. A simple trip to the grocery store may now be filled with worry, concern, and even confrontation. On a daily basis, we are dealing with our own personal concerns as workers and shoppers. That on its own can be trying enough, however, we also encounter a steady number of confrontations throughout the week. Co-op members and staff have varied opinions and viewpoints that are sometimes in opposition. This has become especially clear in 2020. Our ability to appreciate and respect a viewpoint that is different than our own can be very difficult during this highly charged emotional time.

We are all tired of having to navigate the concerns and restrictions of the pandemic, and our tolerance is low. This collective fatigue has led to some heated exchanges when individuals encounter someone whose perspective differs from their own. The triggers vary: it could be opposing views on our mask policy, the temporary suspension of consuming food on our premises, or a dozen other issues. No matter the trigger, what is concerning to me is how we sometimes treat each other during these interactions. We can do better. As a Co-op community, I believe we can, and should, find a way to treat each other with a higher level of compassion and decency when facing someone whose position is in direct opposition to our own. I know at times that this can be really hard to do.  As the pandemic drags on, I hope we can all pause when something triggers our emotions and try to be courteous, polite, and gracious to one another. Perhaps by demonstrating our best selves at our own Co-op when shopping or working, it will encourage more of the same in our community.

Okay, now for some COVID-19 and general updates about your Co-op:

As a result of COVID-19, so much has already changed, and the many questions and unknowns will certainly drive future changes as well. Here are some changes that have happened due to COVID-19.

  • C-SQUARE & Third Street Cafe were closed early in the year. We reopened Third Street Cafe for takeout in July and then for a new version of dine-in service. You can visit us online or stop in for more information on current services. As for C-SQUARE, there are no immediate plans to reopen that part of our business. However, our baked goods, ice cream, and coffee are still available in the Co-op.
  • We shut down the hot bar, salad bar, made-to-order sandwiches, and the Mezzanine in March. Unfortunately, until restrictions are lifted on the number of shoppers allowed in our building, the Mezzanine will remain closed. We will continue to offer pre-made sandwiches as we have been doing for the last few months. We are currently making plans to re-configure our deli area so we can bring back hot food offerings. Sometime this fall, we hope to have a new full-service hot bar and soup station. Self-service still won’t be an option. This is a big change from “how things used to be,” but we felt strongly that the safest option moving forward was to minimize self-service options as much as possible. We are anxious to have our Deli reset complete, so we can serve you hot food once again! Additionally, we’re planning to add a new refrigerated case to the Deli for our popular grab-n-go items, as well as some fresh, new options, too!
  • The Bulk Department: by the time you read this, the Bulk Department will have undergone a huge overhaul! Thanks for your patience as we make upgrades to improve the shopping experience. We replaced most of the scoop bins with a pull handle gravity bin. Gravity bins eliminate hands and scoops from coming in contact with the product, which makes for a much safer bulk food experience. The change also made room for some new products customers have been requesting.
  • We have been offering our Co-op Curbside online grocery ordering services for a few months now. We feel that this is an important service for our members during this time, and we’ve put a lot of energy into making this a viable service for member/shoppers needing an alternative to a traditional in-store shopping trip. We have thousands of our most popular items available online, and are adding hundreds every week.
  • The Co-op has always prided itself on delivering safe food, as well as a sanitary and clean shopping experience. We’ve increased the frequency, as well as the scope, of our sanitation and cleanliness to help minimize risk associated with COVID-19.
  • We have been limiting the number of shoppers allowed in our store, and the maximum number will be adjusted as circumstances change and restrictions are eased. The goal of limiting the number of shoppers in the store is to allow for social distancing throughout the shopping experience. The reality is that we have a small store with narrow aisles and keeping a six-foot distance between shoppers and/or staff is challenging at best. In such a tight space, it is important for shoppers and staff to be aware of social distancing and to try to avoid extended periods of time where you may be standing next to another person. You will not be able to avoid passing other individuals, but if we all just try to move on in a timely manner, and not linger in conversation with others, we can help lower the risk.

Non-COVID-19 updates:

  • We’re excited to announce that our awesome Produce Department received a much-needed upgrade. The refrigerated cases and tables were replaced with all new equipment. Our new look created a few days of pain as we switch things out, but the end result were well worth the inconvenience.
  • We’re also replacing our cheese and frozen meat cases to increase offerings and to make it easier to find the items you’re after.
  • In August, we filled the many cracks and potholes in the parking lot and had it re-striped. It looks great, and is safer, too!
  • In an effort to improve the aesthetics of the Co-op entrance, the trash and recycle receptacles have been relocated to the other side of the overpass. We also painted a mural on our neighbor’s building! We want to thank our neighbors, Ziply Fiber (formally Frontier), for allowing us to use their building for cheery art! Kudos to our very own Graphic Artist Emily Zimmerman for her design and painting of the mural, much appreciated! Our new mural is a colorful, bright, and joyful addition to the Co-op space meant to lift your spirit.
  • This year, we offered our members the opportunity to donate their patronage refund to the Skagit Food Distribution Center. I was blown away by the response! We’re so excited that we were able to contribute over $10,000 to the center because of our members’ generosity! Thank you all so much!
  • Finally, I want to thank all of our staff. Their dedication and efforts to serve our Co-op community during this time has been nothing short of sensational. Faced with all the uncertainty and risk associated with being a front-line worker during a pandemic, they have all stepped up and delivered great customer service to our shoppers. There have certainly been obstacles, but they have navigated through them with a resiliency that should make us all proud. During one of your next visits to the store, I hope you can take a moment and personally thank our staff for all their great work.
    • On our end, we have shown appreciation to our staff on a regular basis through a number of different approaches. We have continued to provide non-salaried staff with an additional “hero pay” adjustment to their hourly rates. For several months we provided free lunches daily. We have had cookouts, root beer float days, free T-shirts, strawberry shortcake, a pizza day, and more. We plan to continue to explore and find ways to continually celebrate our staff and I hope that you can all do the same.

In closing, it has been an eventful first year on the job. Much of it has been a blur. I’m grateful for the opportunity to lead this great community asset. I look forward to a more normalized time where I can see all of your smiles, have some conversations, and get to know you all in a much different way. Until then, please do reach out via phone or email to let me know of any issues, concerns, ideas… or just to say hello!

In Cooperation,

Tony White
General Manager, Skagit Valley Food Co-op

To read Tony’s most recent 1-year anniversary letter to members and shoppers (January 13th, 2021), click here.