March 26, 2020

Provided photo
Early morning shoppers gather in front of the Publix grocery store at the Kmart shopping plaza recently. Demand appeared to be subsiding at the island's grocery stores in recent days.

Provided photo Early morning shoppers gather in front of the Publix grocery store at the Kmart shopping plaza recently. Demand appeared to be subsiding at the island's grocery stores in recent days.

Grocery shopping has become a competitive sport in these new days of the COVID-19 virus.

People line up an hour before Publix opens, shouting at others who try to cut the line. The sanitizing wipes next to the grocery carts in the front of the Publix Super Market at Keys Plaza are gone. Some people wear surgical gloves while shopping.

Meanwhile, the paper goods aisles at all of the local food stores in Key West are empty, unless you are one of the lucky ones who happens to be there when Winn-Dixie shelf stockers put out a small amount of toilet paper delivered that day.

The good news, however, is that food is still on the shelves, although some items are not available every day. Residents are learning the best times of day to shop (early!) and what days different stores receive deliveries (Wednesday for chicken at Fausto’s Food Palace).

While crowds have thinned at local grocery stores, only quail eggs are currently available at the Searstown Publix, but more varieties are on the way. (ROB O’NEAL/The Citizen)

“We heard from a friend that Publix restocks on Wednesdays. I went over Wednesday morning. It was very crowded and they were actively restocking,” said Chris Moore, Key West resident. “They [store employees] are doing a wonderful job. The people could not be nicer or working harder. They’re heroes.”

So far, local grocery stores are receiving regular deliveries, although minus the normal paper goods and some other products. Maykel Nardo, manager of the Key West Winn-Dixie, said he is receiving the same amount of product every day but that shortages are caused by people buying more as they hunker down to ride out COVID-19. He said he gets three to four pallets of toilet paper and paper towel every day but it leaves the shelves as soon as it is put out. He said he holds back a pallet to put out for afternoon shoppers. Nardo also takes requests from seniors and mothers with children, holding items for them.

“We can save those items for them. They can request something. I’m doing that for seniors and moms with little kids,” he said.

Nardo has also increased hours at the Winn-Dixie. Corporate headquarters had set hours for 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., with 8-9 a.m. set aside for senior citizens. But Nardo is opening the store on Monday through Friday from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. The reason? To thin the crowds and promote social distancing.

“What I’m trying to avoid is lines. There are too many people outside waiting. I don’t want crowds,” he said.

Over at the two Publix grocery stores, a senior citizen shopping hour is in effect on Tuesdays and Wednesdays from 7-8 a.m. for people age 65 and over. Publix pharmacy will also be open for seniors-only from 7-8 a.m. on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. Maria Brous, director of communications, said the stores continue to receive daily deliveries.

“However, we are asking for the help of our customers and encourage them not to stockpile. The grocery industry is resilient. We need to provide an opportunity for the supplies to get back into the pipeline and see normal shopping activity,” she wrote in an email to the Citizen. “Our stores are reserving the right to limit quantities by store location to help meet the needs of the greater community. There is no ‘best time’ to shop as deliveries are made throughout the day.”

The Public organization has also ramped up hiring to meet the higher demand from shoppers. Brous said the hiring effort is spread throughout Publix’s 1,243 stores in seven states, including Key West.

“The hiring effort is part of the new norm we’re seeing with an increase in business. It’s important to note, positions are not just for the short-term. We’re hiring for permanent positions,” she said.

More locally, the two Fausto’s Food Palaces are “going ok,” according to owner Jimmy Weekley. While his primary distributor, Super Value, has put a two-case limit on some items, Weekley has found other suppliers to make up the difference. With restaurants only doing take-out and delivery, Weekley has been able to get product from Sysco and Gordon Food Service, which normally focus on restaurant clients.

“There’s some items we’ve been having trouble getting: paper items, eggs, rice seems to be difficult to get. That’s pretty much it,” Weekley said, adding, “We’re going to stay open as long as we can, as long as we can get product.”

Fausto’s employees are busy sanitizing the cash registers and handles of the shopping carts and baskets. Anything they can think of to clean is being cleaned, Weekley said.

“I’m a little exhausted. I’ve been working so much,” he said with a laugh.

Liquor stores don’t seem to be having product shortages, perhaps a relief in a cocktail-loving town like Key West. Nicole Canalejo, owner and manager of Conch Town Liquor & Lounge, has had to close the lounge part of her business, like all other bars statewide, but bottle liquor and wine sales are stable. Conch Town also delivers in Key West, with a minimum $10 order, and she said they have been receiving “a lot” of calls for delivery.

“Anything we’re out of, we’ll get delivered tomorrow,” she said. “I’m grateful I’m allowed to stay open. That’s a blessing.”

psowers@keysnews.com