Updated 5 pm
Cronig’s is closing on Sundays for the foreseeable future, an attempt by owner Steve Bernier to give his beleaguered staff some time off and rest.
In an Instagram and Facebook video, Bernier explained his decision and asked his customers to help him moving forward by making fewer trips to the store and only sending one member of a family inside to shop.
“My staff is working their butts off and scared out of their minds at the same time,” Bernier told The Times after sharing his video. Bernier had previously closed the up-Island Cronig’s moving the stock and staff to the Tisbury store.
“The people here working at Cronig’s, serving you and working for me, are very tired,” Bernier said in the video. “I wanted to wait until Easter to close on Sundays. I made the decision early this morning; I need to make the decision for this Sunday.”
Bernier also touched on social distancing in the store. He asked shoppers to make fewer trips — something he’s already seen — and though it’s not mandatory, to only have one shopper go to the store.
“I want you to come in one person, per family, per trip,” he said. He asked other shoppers to “politely” enforce this. He said he wants to institute the limits before he’s forced to do it by the board of health.
The idea of doing curbside pickup or delivery is not possible, Bernier said because of his limited staff. To that end, he asked the public to limit calls to him at the store to essential calls.
“There are 5,000 of you and one of me,” he said. “I love to talk to you. I love to interact with you. I’m getting worn out.”
As for the supply chain in the store, Bernier said he hopes to share more information in a future video with customers. “We open up [the trucks] and pray to God we have some product in there,” he said.
His staff is physically worn out. “We’re now going to move into the spiritual aspect of this game and put this in God’s hands to help us — to hold us together, to give us strength so we can be here to serve you,” Bernier said. “Let’s hang together. We are going to make this happen. We are going to survive.”
Supervisor Norma Blidgen, who’s worked at Cronig’s for 18 years, said the grocery store is certainly busier than normal for the time of year and she’s seen many seasonal people she doesn’t normally see so early. In addition to gloves and masks, the added protection of sneeze guards at the registers came recently. Bernier said it was Norma’s husband who installed the guards, which are made from Plexiglas bought at Shirley’s. While they are out of hand sanitizer presently, staff have disinfectant wipes they can use, Blidgen said. Asked how customers have adhered to social distancing, she said,
“A few times I’ve had to say could you step back a little bit but not a lot.”
Also she said, sometimes family members shopping in the store “bunch up,” she said.
As far as her mindset is concerned in the midst of the pandemic, she said, “personally I have had moments of like, oh my God I can’t see it, I can’t feel it, but it’s there.”
While the increased volume of customers has hit the store when staffing isn’t as robust as summertime, she said “we’re making it work” with workers taken from Up-Island Cronig’s. She knew of nobody working at the store who has developed COVID-19.
Cashier Aloizio Vargas, who’s worked at Cronig’s for 11 to 12 years, said “some people are a little desperate” in their attempts to stock up and plan for uncertainty. He described the change underway in the store and in society at large as a great “coming together” or as his mother would say, “we’re going back to our old love of one another.”
He lauded the new sneeze guards, describing them as stop signs that don’t say stop.
“When they see that plastic in front of us, it is kind of a reminder — I need to keep my distance and it is working in a good way.”
Vargas spoke highly of Bernier. “He treats me like a son,” he said. “He’s a good guy. We’re very blessed.”
He was optimistic about the future. “I think we’re going to get through this by helping each other,” he said.
Demand clear, supply cloudy
“So the crazy day here was Friday March 13,” Bernier said. “At Cronig’s, the third of July is always our busiest day of the year. We surpassed that by 30%.” Bernier boiled the day down to the biggest sales day Cronig’s has ever had. That day, he said, he called his manager at Up-Island Cronig’s and could hear the fear in his voice about the strain the staff was under.
“We got scared,” he said. “It was out of control. And it wasn’t that we were having a busy day like summer, but we were having that kind of business with the winter crew. The J1/H2Bs were’t here. Well these people handled it like champions but it scared the daylights out of us.”
That Friday night, not knowing what Saturday might bring, Bernier and his managers decided to close down Up-Island Cronig’s and decamp to the main store.
Then shipments started to shrink. “The next 10 days, the trailers came with less and less product.” At the time, everybody just soldiered through without much reflection but now Bernier said something has become evident.
“Looking back now the pattern was starting to develop that the warehouse was emptying out,” he said. Over the next week, Bernier said he had calls with a key warehouse and they didn’t seem to realize what was happening either. Bernier said the revelation was “they’re in as much trouble as we are.” Modern efficiency is one cause of the shortfall in supply, Bernier said. The world is on demand with no surplus today, he said. And because of that, when the pandemic came, he said, “our pants were around our ankles.”
Bernier pointed to a regional supplier, Sid Wainer and Son of New Bedford, a company that recently changed hands. He said 95 percent of that company’s business comes from restaurants. Cronig’s regularly buys from them and all of a sudden “they don’t have anything.”
He went on to say, “What happened was the buyers are used to buying for the whole cadre. When you take out 95 percent of the volume, you can’t make the turns; you can’t fill the trucks; you can’t put an order together. It just doesn’t work.”
Never before in Cronig’s history did a span of days go by without deliveries from Sid Wainer and Son, he said.
“They just came back in the other day with some stuff trying to put the wheel back on the cart,” he said, “trying to get back into business and get going, before bankruptcy sets in.”
The knock on effect, he said, is that if companies like Sid Wainer and Son go under, when the restaurants open back up, the suppliers they rely on won’t be there.
In light of the shortfalls from distribution warehouses, Bernier opted to over-order.
“So I said to everybody here, let’s order for a trailer and a half, and then you open up and it’s only a quarter full. So from a trailer and a half to a quarter trailer percentage-wise is a huge difference. We’re paying for the driver; we’re paying for the cab; we’re paying for the gas; we’re paying for the boat, which would be dispersed over a trailer load of product. Now it’s dispersed over a quarter of a trailer.”
Bernier said he then actually had to shift to two tractor trailers to account for perishables and other groceries. “Both trailers came in a quarter full.”
He stressed he cannot know what they look like inside until after they arrive. “Today was our best day since this started,” he said.
Trucks that come to Cronig’s are often interstate, he said, and that’s become problematic.
“We heard from a truck driver,” he said. “He was heading across country to New York — going east — and was stopped on the border going into New York. A state trooper stopped him and said you don’t have New York plates. Get out of here.”
That driver was going through New York and Massachusetts to get to a distribution hub in Brattleboro, Vermont, C & S Wholesale Grocers. He had “product we needed,” Bernier said.
That kind of trucking issue, he said, plus a national dearth of truck drivers exacerbates grocery warehouses already beset with illnesses, broken production lines and other supply-side problems. For a system with little flexibility, extra inventory or extra support, the pandemic then whipped up “problems in your face, just like that,” he said.
“The customers, we’re telling them not to hoard and they’re saying but look at the store, you’re going to run out of food.”
Bernier said the food is coming but it’s still a bit of a cliffhanger. He confessed he didn’t understand the craze to hoard toilet paper or the urgency people have for milk.
“We’ve been receiving no milk. Guy says to me, ‘are you ordering milk?’ I said yeah, we order milk every day. He says, ‘well where’s the milk?’ I said if it ain’t here, it’s probably in the cow.”
He added, “I don’t know what’s going on. There’s no communication with that stuff. Today we received our best dairy load, our best grocery aisle load that we’ve had since day one of the problem. But I don’t know what tomorrow is going to bring.”
Reporter Rich Saltzberg contributed to this story. Updated to add more details from Bernier.