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Local food shortage unlikely

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Matt Griffith of Grocery Outlet examines several pallets of items the Island City store received Tuesday.

LA GRANDE — The deadly coronavirus continues to gain momentum in the United States, posing an increasing threat to the economy. Still, a number of local grocers believe there are good reasons to doubt a food shortage of any magnitude is on the horizon for the Grande Ronde Valley.

Mike Colkitt, the owner of Union Market in Union, said Tuesday his distributor, Associated Food Stores of Salt Lake City, is telling him warehouses are full. Colkitt, however, is having a difficult time keeping his shelves filled because the distributor cannot get food and other items to him fast enough to meet the growing demand of anxious customers.

“It is a logistical issue,” Colkitt said. “(The distributors) have plenty of product.”

Logistics holding up products

Randy Willson, co-owner of Grocery Outlet in Island City with his wife, Michelle, agrees. He said the truck shipments are taking longer to reach Union County because of a continuing shortage of truck drivers in the United States and restrictions the government imposed to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

One of these is a rule that workers in warehouses cannot work closer than 6 feet together. Randy Willson said this is reducing the number of employees distribution companies can have working in their warehouses at one time, reducing efficiency.

Willson said despite sometimes slower deliveries, he has been able to keep his store’s shelves filled with food items during a time when demand is skyrocketing. He noted sales on Monday were up 200% from the same Monday in March a year ago.

Marco Rennie, owner of Market Place Fresh Foods in La Grande, is guarded in his outlook. Rennie said his produce supplier is continuing to make consistent deliveries, but his primary supplier of dairy products and frozen foods is not doing as well. Deliveries are inconsistent and often not complete.

“It is having difficulty keeping up,” Rennie said.

He said wholesalers are telling him the demand for products is up more than 100% and wholesalers are having a hard time keeping up with demand for logistical reasons, which include not only a lack of truck drivers but also a shortage of trucks. And wholesalers are having a hard time getting enough of certain product to ship, including toilet paper, rubbing alcohol and sanitizers, Rennie said.

Derrick Erickson, Market Place’s produce manager, said there has not been panic buying at his store but customers have been stocking up.

“There have been more filled baskets,” Erickson said.

He noted that last weekend a man purchased $300 worth of groceries.

Some have been panic buying

At Short Stop Xtreme — which features a small grocery store, a Skippers restaurant and frozen yogurt shop, and a fuel station — co-owner Fred Bell Jr. does not foresee any shortages. He said deliveries of produce and products continue to be on time, but he is ready for any hiccups. Bell explained he has three to four months of inventory built up.

“We saw this coming,” said Bell, who owns Short Stop Xtreme with his wife, Tara.

He said he has seen some panic buying, including an increase in the purchase of tobacco products and gasoline. But Bell said he believes there is no reason to worry about a gas availability problem.

“There will not be a shortage of gasoline. There is too much of a supply,” he said.

The Short Stop’s yogurt shop and Skippers restaurant was hit for a loop Monday when Gov. Kate Brown announced that all dine-in restaurants must close. The Short Stop will be able to continue operating the drive-through Skipper’s portion of its restaurant. Still he anticipates that his business will be hurt.

“That (the dine-in portion of his restaurant) was 80% of our business (at Skippers),” he said.

To help offset this, Bell hopes to start a Skippers delivery service next week once he gets a mobile credit machine set up.

“A lot of people do not feel comfortable going out (because of COVID-19),” Bell said.

Adjusting for social distancing

At Grocery Outlet, Randy and Michelle Willson said business has been so brisk the staff is having to work extra hours. To make customers feel more comfortable in the wake of more crowded conditions created by the extra business, the Willsons on Monday began opening at 6 a.m., three hours earlier than usual. This gives people a time to shop when there are fewer people present and makes it easier for them to maintain the recommended “social distance” of 6 feet from other people to best protect them from spreading COVID-19.

This is among many steps Grocery Outlet and stores throughout the area are taking to protect shoppers. At Market Place Fresh Foods, Rennie said samples of cut fruits and vegetables are no longer readily available for customers to try. Samples, though, are being provided upon request.

In addition, employees at Market Place and elsewhere are wearing plastic gloves, including anyone who handles money.

“We are taking steps to make as safe an environment for people as we possibly can,” he said.

The Market Place closed its rooftop dining area, its dining room and its bar because of Brown’s directive on Monday. The store is doing its best to offer a family dining experience, continuing with its new program, Fresh Takes, which are boxed meals for four that customers cook at home.

Colkitt said at Union Market he has encountered people trying to hoard items. For example, recently a man asked for 100 pounds of hamburger, but Colkitt limited him to 10.

He explained he wanted to have enough hamburger on hand for people coming to the market from La Grande and other places in search of the meat.

The owner of Union Market said when the store begins to run low on a popular item, he limits the amount people can buy. Colkitt is encouraging people to be considerate and buy what they need for the next week, not for the next month or two.

“Think of your neighbor,” he said. “Everybody is in this together.”

General assignment reporter

Beats include the communities of North Powder, Imbler, Island City and Union, education, Union County veterans programs and local history. Dick joined The Observer in 1983, first working as a sports and outdoors reporter.

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