Ruta Smith

The coronavirus pandemic has disrupted the food supply chain as purveyors struggle without restaurant clients and farmers look to expand to direct-to-consumer sales. With some exception, big-box grocery stores in the Charleston area have been able to keep shelves stocked with essentials following the initial wave of panic purchasing. After shifting how they run their stores, local, independently owned grocers are also keeping business afloat by finding ways to accommodate coronavirus grocery shopping trends.

Burbage’s Grocery, a downtown Charleston staple since 1946, has found new ways to operate after a short adjustment period.

“Originally, we had trouble getting dairy and meat,” says co-owner George Bowen, who assumed ownership of the store with his wife Lisa from “Big Al” Burbage in 2013. “We of course had trouble getting sanitizer and Clorox products in, but we haven’t had any issues finding toilet paper, paper towels, or chicken.”

Veggie Bin owner Michael Bailey says he is not having trouble filling shelves at his Spring Street market either. “The produce has been coming in regularly from Limehouse Produce, GrowFood Carolina, and the other farmers we buy from.”

According to Bailey, he’s been able to adjust to new precautionary procedures relatively seamlessly — they’ve added plastic shields at the cash register and reduced hours significantly, closing completely on the weekends when they would normally see larger crowds.

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At Burbage’s, Bowen has taken a different approach that has enabled him and his wife to continue serving the consumers who rely on them. Store areas that were once occupied by tables have been replaced by additional produce and pop-up retail space by The Boutique where patrons can purchase unique soap, towels, napkins, and other essentials.

They’ve scratched their made-to-order sandwiches from the menu, replacing them with something else entirely that’s making shoppers look forward to a trip to Burbage’s.

“We are bringing in Chick-fil-A daily as a peace offering to our hardcore barbecue sandwich fans,” Bowen explains. “We have been partnered with the West Ashley Chick-fil-A for over a year and used to just have them on Tuesdays. We usually sell out in about an hour.”

Charlie’s Grocery co-owner Abraham Dabit also knew that this unique situation would require a shift in operations, which led him to give his employees a 10-day hiatus once the College of Charleston announced they were transitioning to online classes. “We came back with a plan to keep everyone safe,” Dabit says. “During that week off, we learned how easily this virus can spread, so we decided to leave the cleanliness of our inventory to ourselves.” For Dabit, this meant not allowing patrons inside the store. “We have clearly labeled stations with a path leading to the door,” Dabit explains.

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One common theme for big-box stores and small independent grocers alike is that people aren’t just buying more — they’re buying a lot more.

“Our grocery sales are way up even though we are only open 5 hours a day instead of 12,” Bowen says. Bailey has had a similar experience. “Our local meats like sausage have been selling out and we’re selling pasta like crazy. Our business has certainly increased over the past few weeks.”

Kimberly Baker, team director of Clemson University’s food systems and safety program isn’t surprised by the sales growth given consumer trends she’s witnessed since the coronavirus began to spread.

“We used to just plan for breakfast and dinner, but now all of a sudden we have three square meals at home,” Baker says. “At the very beginning, people were buying up everything they could think of. That’s settled down a little bit, but it’s still a bit of a challenge to find certain items.”

Independent Charleston grocers certainly do not encourage overbuying, but they have been invigorated by the support they’ve received from the community. “We’ve been doing this for 24 years and there’s a huge support for local business here,” says Dabit.

“We’ve been very fortunate,” echoes Bowen. “The fact that we can go from doing large lunch crowds daily and still be OK is great.”