At Black Mountain groceries, workers adjust to unusual circumstances

Jacob Flannick
Special to Black Mountain News

BLACK MOUNTAIN - Not long after being laid off about a month ago, Ian Schaller took a job at a place that has drawn considerable attention as of late: a grocery store. 

And even though such unforeseen circumstances probably felt disruptive, he expressed a sanguine outlook as he tended a cash register on a recent afternoon at this family-owned grocery in Black Mountain.

“I’ve talked about working here forever,” Schaller said of the store, Hopey & Co., along U.S. 70, which sells artisanal and discounted foods.

In his mid-20s, Schaller, who had worked as a wellness coach at the YMCA in downtown Asheville, is among a dozen or so workers the store has hired in recent weeks to adjust to a flurry of changes amid the coronavirus outbreak. 

“Everyone’s taking it differently,” he said. “I think this whole slow-down has been kind of cool.”

Katherine Anderson is a Montreat College sophomore who took a job recently as a cashier at Hopey & Co. in Black Mountain. Asked about her experience with customers, she said, "There's a lot of appreciation."

Indeed, how grocery workers are experiencing such unusual circumstances perhaps depends partly on their role.

“I’m a little more stressed out,” said Esther Hopey, who has helped manage Hopey & Co. for about a decade. She cited a spate of changes over the past month or so that she described as a “roller coaster,” including safety precautions such as sanitizing around the clock as well as weekly managerial meetings. “I don’t want to be too lax,” but she also doesn’t want to appear unconcerned. 

At the same time, the pace at the store has felt less frantic in recent weeks, she suggested, noting a palpable sense of anxiety that emerged around mid-March and that lingered for a couple of weeks. Then, she noted, shoppers were leaving with hundreds of dollars’ worth of goods.

For the most part, “we’re back to normal business,” Hopey said. 

But such relative normalcy, however momentary, is straining some aspects of the grocery industry. 

Karissa Franks, in her early 20s, has worked as a cashier at Hopey & Co. in Black Mountain since early this year. Lately, she said, business at the store has remained steady and isn't as chaotic as last month, after news of the coronavirus outbreak emerged.

At Ingles Markets, a regional grocery chain headquartered in Black Mountain, recruiters are “aggressively” seeking to hire more than 5,000 workers at its 200 stores, Ron Freeman, the grocer’s chief financial officer, said in an email. 

“In general, we have been busier,” he said, noting that warehouse and store employees are working overtime. 

Asked to speak with the manager of a store just outside downtown Black Mountain, Freeman said the manager is “very busy and has been under a lot of stress for about a month now.” He added: “Let him worry about his customers and his employees.”

On a recent visit to the store, on N.C. 9, the pace felt rather sedate, though there were indications of unusual circumstances: Shoppers donned face masks, a windowed cafe and patio near the entrance were cordoned off, and some shelves and even aisles appeared thinly stocked.

At smaller groceries in town, workers spoke of settling into a more steady routine, if only an extraordinary one. 

“I feel like we’re pretty much ahead of the curve,” said Justin Honeywell, who runs Half Moon Market with his wife. 

Selling local and organic foods, the grocery ended up closing its doors around the time of the outbreak, conducting transactions through a window there as well as offering delivery within a 15-mile radius. The staff comprises three workers, including the couple. 

For Honeywell, such a decision has offered a sense of stability, helping him “worry a lot less about my family.” In his mid-30s, he and his wife, Demetria Provatas, have a 6-month-old girl.

At the same time, business is brisk.

“We’re getting new customers every day,” said Honeywell, who was furloughed from his job as a general manager at an Asheville restaurant. He noted that sales at the store have increased from an average $150 per day to multiple thousand-dollar days. “It’s a ton of work at this point.”

And while he has felt weary at times — he has found himself working nine- to 10-hour days at the store, with one day off a week — he suggested that such fatigue is accompanied by the kind of satisfaction following a “really long, good hike.”

Black Mountain Natural Foods is taking a number of safety precautions amid the coronavirus outbreak.

About a five-minute walk away, Black Mountain Natural Foods is increasing its inventory as demand has steadied. 

“We’re providing people with what they need,” said Marcia Merrill, who has worked at the store for nearly two decades. In particular, she cited a number of products the store carries that are promoted as immune boosters, such as elderberry syrup, medicinal mushrooms and silver hydrosol.

In her late 50s, Merrill lives in Old Fort, about a 10-minute drive east of town — “in the country, away from it all,” she said. 

Asked how she’s coping with the changes at her workplace, she responded calmly: “I’m taking it fine.”

At the store, Merrill seeks to project such equanimity, all the while observing safety guidelines such as wearing a face mask and “friendly” social distancing. As of a couple of weeks ago, the store was permitting a limited number of shoppers inside as well as offering curbside delivery.

“I can deal with just about anybody,” she said. “A lot of people are really paranoid who come in here, but I’m OK with it.”

A notice posted on the door of Black Mountain Natural Foods, which is taking a number of safety precautions amid the coronavirus outbreak.

However much grocery workers have settled into a new routine, it remains unclear how and when circumstances may change. 

In an April 9 news briefing, Fletcher Tove, director of public health emergency preparedness for Buncombe County, said demand for health care resources is likely to peak in coming weeks. The magnitude of such expected demand is unclear, however. 

“We could look at data, we could look at models and come up with general dates,” he said. “But the truth is, no one knows the specifics.” 

In the meantime, groceries, and their workers, will remain much needed.

“At a time like this, you want to take care of everybody,” said Hopey, the manager of the namesake grocery. “You also want to take care of yourself.”

For Schaller, the cashier there, he has made it a point to regard shoppers with friendliness — if only by asking about their groceries. Such pleasantries, he suggested, might help assuage any anxiety. 

“I notice that if you say anything, it’s better than not saying anything,” he said. “We’re all in this weird little thing together.”