Profile of Arab American Grocery Stores During Covid-19
By: Lizzie Chidiac/Arab America Contributing Writer
While much has been said in the popular media about the surge in US grocery stores’ revenue and a sharp increase in online grocery shopping during this time of Covid-19 quarantines, how have our favorite Arab American grocery stores fared? For this, owners of popular Arab American grocery stores graciously agree to be interviewed: Mediterranean Bakery in suburban Washington DC (Alexandria, VA), Pitaland in suburban Pittsburgh, PA (Brookline), Souq Market in suburban Atlanta, GA (Gwinnett) and recently opened suburban Houston (Hillcroft), and all four are family run and enjoy very high ratings from their customers.
For starters, we should note that our beloved Middle Eastern grocery stores are typically more than a grocery store. Each of them has a fabulous deli, on-site eatery, and catering services. Their collective experiences, therefore, are more nuanced than those of typical US grocery stores.
Safety measures taken by each of the four locations, despite their being spread across the US, were consistent. As you would expect, all are complying with CDC, state, and local recommendations. For example, all require their employees to “wear high-quality face masks and gloves provided by each of the stores, and all encourage social distancing among customers. And, like always, [we do] heavy disinfecting throughout [the] store and kitchen”. All four have reduced store hours to allow for added time to carry out more frequent disinfecting regimes.
Mediterranean Bakery in Covid-19 hard-hit Washington, DC area requires all customers to wear face masks. Each of the stores reports the need to “meter”, i.e. limit the number of customers in the store during peak shopping times. Some of the store owners have added plastic barriers to further protect employees and customers.
Like with general grocery stores’ experience, in-store grocery shopping and online ordering have spiked. As the owner of Souq Market pointed out, “more and more customers prefer [during this time of Covid-19] to eat home-cooked food.” “All grocery sales are up as people are anxious and purchasing at high volumes”, reports the owner of Pitaland in Pittsburgh, an echo of the experiences of the other three owners. Pitaland cites a whopping 50% increase in online orders. The curbside pickup was introduced in Mediterranean Bakery in DC, Pitaland in Pittsburgh. For shoppers who wanted to remain at home, Grubhub and like delivery services are being employed. Souq Market with locations in suburban Atlanta and Houston are building the technology infrastructure to offer home delivery to their customers.
In-store eating, i.e. restaurants, and food counters had to be suspended in each of our sample stores, as with all in-house seating restaurants. To-go options were always available at all four locations. Happily, each store reports a sharp increase in patrons ordering take-out, either for in-store pickup, curbside pickup, or delivery through a service such as Grubhub.
While grocery, deli and bakery, and takeout sales at these restaurants soar, the catering and restaurant supply side of the businesses flag. The hit was especially difficult as the Covid-19 quarantining, of course, was coincident with the Holy Month of Ramadan, a time when the catering business at each of these stores would be significant. Mediterranean Bakery in DC reports, “Our biggest loss so far has been to the catering side of our business. In the past, we regularly catered to local hotels, as well as providing food for luncheons, dinners and special functions throughout the DC metro area.” Part but not all of this loss is offset by a sharp rise in the sale of prepared foods. Pitaland chefs are “cooking around the clock” to meet the demand. Souq Markets report a sharp increase in the sale of fresh meat.
Another outsized challenge for Middle Eastern grocery stores, because of the large percentage of food items that are imported for sale, is maintaining adequate inventory. All four locations are noticing struggles among their suppliers. “One supplier closed. Others are sold out on many items. It’s been challenging to get our regular orders.” “There have been noticeable delays in getting orders delivered since the ‘shelter at home’ orders first started going out.” Perhaps “it is less of a supplier issue and more of a manufacturing issue”.
The long term impact of Covid-19 on these four stores remains unknown. Of course, no one knows how long Covid-19 will literally plague us. Overlay the visceral impact of social distancing and canceled gatherings, there is the looming risk of a long term economic crisis which may plunge the world into “a prolonged recession or even a depression”.
Covid-19, of course, presents a challenge for all Middle Eastern grocery stores, as it does conventional grocery stores, restaurants, and catering companies. To date, however, all four of our represented stores have maintained full employment of their staff. In fact, Souq Market opened its location in suburban Houston just in February and are looking forward to opening a second location in the Houston area in Katy, TX. “The timing of our opening for the latest store in February 2020…was perfect. We are pleased that in this time of crisis, when the community needed us most, we were with them and were able to help.”
Mediterranean Bakery promises “to do everything we can to keep their [employees’] jobs safe and not cut their hours or wages – even if that means we have to cut our profits for the duration of this crisis. Most of our employees have been with us for years, many of them for decades. We would not have the reputation that we do, or enjoy the loyalty of our customers, if not for the loyalty, dedication, and skill of our employees. They are the backbone and beating heart of the Mediterranean Bakery, and we will never forget that. We want to extend our heartfelt thanks for our customers’ continuing loyalty and patronage. We will always do our best to live up to their expectations and provide the best food that we possibly can.”
Pitaland shares this deep gratitude to both their employees and customers. “We are very blessed to have hard-working and dedicated employees who care about our business and our customers. We are so grateful that our customers are loyal and continue to support us during this time.”
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