The New Normal

5 months ago By Christine Sahadi Whelan
The New Normal

It took me a long time to write this post. Personally and professionally, we have all been hard hit by the current situation. As we tried to figure out this pandemic retail environment, family concerns and staying safe took precedence over marketing and building displays. Work became secondary and only continued because Sahadi’s is an essential business. People worldwide are figuring out what is important to them. Life changed for almost everyone everywhere.

In the 30 years I have been in this business, there has never been so much change in just a few short months.  The supply chains have been completely disrupted, making order fulfillment extremely difficult.  Perhaps a third of what we order actually arrives.  Keeping our diverse team healthy & sane has become a full-time job.  Many, many of our staff come from long subway rides away.  Many are older, live with and care for other family members.  Scheduling has become a nightmare, and most days we have half the staff we need as the internet orders pile up.

Sahadi’s has always been centered around service and personal touch.  You shop with us because our staff is knowledgeable, friendly, and generous with samples.  You have a totally unique experience shopping with us whether it’s at Atlantic Ave or Industry City.  That’s our business and it’s one that has worked for us for the past 70+ years.  For some time, and for a small group of customers that preferred to order online, we fulfilled a few online orders that were delivered by Mercato.  The Atlantic Ave store fulfilled a handful of orders this way.  The Industry City store hadn’t even turned on our online store when all this started.  Suddenly overnight, Mercato and contactless deliveries are 70% of our business.  Every day, hundreds of bags sit on racks in the front of both stores waiting for couriers.  The beautiful sitdown café area of our Industry City store has become a fulfillment center.  Countless hours of design meetings for the café went out the window as we threw down pallets in the aisles to stock more pantry staples.

Years of careful product curation became secondary, as we tried to stay in stock on paper products, beans, grains and pasta.  Produce and dairy became essential.  As our deli sales dived, we started selling raw meat and poultry to cook at home.  With the limited staff we had, we started pre-packing everything in the deli including our amazing olive bar.  Our curated Mediterranean wine selection changed from being enjoyed on site at our bar, to being delivered by the bottle.  Our legendary cheese department became “cut and wrap” for speed.

The hardest part of this whole experience was closing the doors to walk-in customers at our original store on Atlantic Ave.  My brother Ron and my husband Pat and I struggled terribly with the decision.  The architectural challenges of the old landmarked building made social distancing impossible.  After spending most of my professional life in that building it broke my heart, but our teams down there are soldiering on and filling thousands of Mercato orders.  The Industry City store does still allow for in-person shopping from 11-7 daily (please visit us, but if you do, please wear a mask!).

Through it all were bright signs.  An adaptable young management staff shining during the crisis and holding us all together, encouraging the teams, motivating everyone when things were tough, rising to the occasion in a way that made my heart happy to have them.  We are beyond proud of their accomplishments.  Customers who for the most part had patience as we navigated the choppy waters of a new store and industry with no warning or preparation.  The amazing positive reviews and appreciation from clients who knew we were struggling to fulfill expectations.  Small suppliers who sometimes hand-delivered, so we would have products on our shelves and for deliveries.  The walk-in customers still smiling through their masks while shopping at Industry City made our days a little brighter.

None of us know when this will be over or what our industries will be like when it is.  How long will social distancing take place?  Is it possible to make retail and cafe service sustainable?  What we do know is that we will come out of this a stronger company and hopefully a kinder, gentler society.  I’m personally hoping that people will have more patience and appreciation for cultures worldwide that are all dealing with the same types of issues.  I for one will be deeply grateful when we can finally welcome people back, when we can be hospitable again, in whatever the “New Normal” is.