By Travis Mounts
While many businesses are seeing a slow down or have even shut their doors, our locally-owned small-town grocery stores are as busy as they have been in years.
SPK in Cheney, Mize’s Thriftway in Clearwater, and Hired Man’s Grocery and Grill in Conway Springs have seen an influx of shoppers, and in the case of SPK and Mize’s, a good number of those shoppers are coming from Wichita and other areas.
All the stores are working hard to keep up with demand, even as they struggle to keep in stock items like toilet paper, cleaning wipes, hand sanitizer and bread.
Kathy Pauly, a manager at SPK, said they began seeing business increase on March 12. She said it did not take long for a shipment of toilet paper that arrived last Friday morning to disappear.
“They were taking it basically out of our hands before we could get it on the shelves,” she said.
SPK has added five people to staff over the past week.
Mize’s and Hired Man’s have not added additional staff, but the staff members they do have are putting in more hours. Some of those employees are high school students who are out of class and have been able to put in additional time.
Jenny Osner, who co-owns Hired Man’s with her husband, Clint, said they saw buying habits start to change in the middle of last week.
“We’re just trying to survive and keep things on the shelves,” she said. Osner is spending a lot of her time just trying to order the right products and in the right amounts.
Eggs, milk, bread and toilet paper are the items that are going most quickly. Hired Man’s received 100 packages of toilet paper on Friday morning.
“It was gone by the end of Friday,” she said.
It’s a similar story at Mize’s.
“We are very busy,” said Brad Mize. “We are seeing more out-of-towners now than we did in the first three days (of the rush). We’re just working more. I’m very lucky I have good help.
Mize said stores are limited on how many items they can get their hands on.
“We typically carry about 32,000 items in the story. It looks like we’re half-empty,” he said, adding that he’s limiting his order to about 900 items, the top 20 percent of what customers are buying. “I have to pick and choose what I want. Do I want a box of hamburger or a box of dog food?”
SPK has seen milk sales quadruple, and they sold 350 dozen eggs in a two day-period.
“We love the level of business,” said Dave Clark, another manager at SPK. He said they have seen an influx of Dillons and Walmart shoppers. “They’re showing up from Wichita.”
Pauly said there is a core group of customers she worries about, and that’s older shoppers.
“We want to make sure our elderly folks are taken care of. They’re always here for us,” she said.
Mize said this has been a learning process for grocers.
“I know what people don’t want – the things I have on the shelves,” he said with a laugh.
All three stores have cut their own meat and have been able to keep up with demand, while some stores in Wichita are out. Pauly and Mize said they have been hearing from a number of shoppers in Wichita who drove to their stores and we were surprised not only that the stores had meat, but at the high quality.
SPK had a delivery driver from the Kansas City area purchase meat to take home because his local stores have been out.
Flour, sugar and yeast also have been popular purchases. Mize said the bread companies have been cutting supplies to stores as they struggle to keep up with demand. Pauly said a number kids, now stuck at home, are learning to bake. Tortilla sales also are up, presumably as an alternative to bread.
Osner said Hired Man’s always has had good community support, and shoppers are being mindful of others.
“The local people are good. They’re buying only what they need and looking out for others,” she said.
Neither Hired Man’s nor Mize’s had instituted limits on supplies. SPK has put limits on paper goods, bleach, cleaning wipes and hand sanitizers. Some families are coming in to shop, and splitting into separate lines at the last moment to get around the one-per-family limit. Another shopper was seen buying toilet paper, going outside, and then coming back in to buy more while going through a different check-out line, one local grocery said.
The stores hope the upswing in business will continue after things return to normal. They know that some of the customers they are seeing now are folks who have been shopping at national chains in Wichita.
“We took care of them at this critical moment. We hope they will take care of us,” Mize said.
Pauly echoed that.
“So many people have thanked us for being here,” she said. “We’re here for our people.”