While the rustic wooden interior beams and the welcoming entryway at Dahlia & Sage Market have not changed, the environment of the small store in Cloverdale has.
Less customers frequent the store and when they do, they don masks and stay six feet apart, patrons no longer help themselves at the salad bar and grocers at the market scurry to answer the phone to fulfill an order instead of interacting with guests.
For now, this is the new reality for Dahlia & Sage workers Jean Hager and Mario Lopez, who have been working hard to adapt to the changes in order to provide essential food items to customers with an upbeat attitude to boot.
Peter Kruger, one of the store owners and partners, said they had to make decisions fairly quickly on how they were going to adapt to the drastic changes put in place by the county’s shelter-in-place order and social distancing protocol.
“Because of what the health department has asked us to do, we’ve stripped back a lot of the components to our business, including the deli, salad bar and the hot food that we normally serve, as well as our bulk food. We’ve had to package that into individual packages.”
Kruger said. “We also changed our open house (hours) and that was because we are also taking phone and internet orders, which we have never done before and that requires a lot more labor.”
The new store hours are 11 a.m. to 6 p.m.
The owners behind the market also decided to break the store team members down into groups who work five days and then have five days off. This way, the different groups do not intersect, Kruger explained.
When Hager, who’s worked at the store since November and is in charge of the produce department, is working her five days she stays busy restocking shelves and placing new orders.
“I try to get here as early as I can,” Hager said when asked to describe her day amid the new changes. “The delivery is waiting for me and I put it all out and make it as beautiful as I can. My background is interior design, so I like to make it look good. I restock from the back whatever is in there, I change the prices since the prices change daily and I make the store look pretty.”
Hager said she bases her orders on consumer trends. For instance, right now people are into citrus and potatoes and then it was garlic, according to Hager.
When her shift is over, she sanitizes her hands before climbing into the car and as soon as she gets home, she throws her clothes in the wash and takes a shower.
“I try to remind my kids to try not to touch me when I come in and I throw them kisses,” Hager said.
So how is Hager adapting to this new routine of being an essential worker during a pandemic? She said while it has been a bit nerve wracking, she feels the store has been lucky.
“From my own personal life, it is kind of a drag, but we are a little bit nervous and on edge and we have our anxiety. I think we are lucky in our store. People are aware and conscious, and they are really great about wearing their masks. We have a small store, but people are being kind and considerate about the six-foot distance,” she said.
Hager said for the most part, customers have been courteous and considerate, however, she said there is still always a nagging reminder of the coronavirus in the back of your head.
“It is in the back of our minds,” she said. “It is kind of like that constant little nag that kind of wears you down. We do five days on and five days off and by the fourth day (of work) in our mental place we all get a little squirrely and we have to kind of make it fun.”
To keep things lighthearted Hager said she’ll try to crack jokes with colleagues or order takeout as a special treat.
On her days off, she said on the first day she is exhausted and by the fourth day, her anxiety level heightens because she knows she has to leave her kids and husband. Still, she said it is rewarding to be able to work with good people and to know that she is bringing good and healthy food to the community.
Now in a day and age where grocery store workers are being put in the same category as nurses and first responders as essential workers on the front lines, Hager says she can’t put herself anywhere near that same category.
“I guess I have a hard time getting a compliment,” she said. “It’s nice to hear that, but at the same time I don’t want to be put on the same level of importance (as first responders and medical workers). Throwing broccoli in a basket isn't that sexy.”
For Lopez, who’s worked at the store since January, his day starts with a bit of mental preparation.
“It takes a little bit of mental preparation to get ready and put on the mask, which has been such a strange thing. It is weird to work with new people and not see their face,” he said.
After putting on the required gloves and mask, Lopez works on copious amounts of cleaning and compiling food orders.
“The job has changed a lot, there are a lot of phone orders and deliveries. Other than that, it is just a whole lot cleaner, not that it wasn't clean before, but it kind of borders on manic cleaning,” Lopez said.
He added that the energy in the store has changed and he’s afraid to even clear his throat if he has allergies, for example.
“There is some strange energy,” Lopez said, adding that you can never really forget about what is going on with the pandemic.
“It is odd to think about something so frequently throughout the day. It makes it really hard to find a rhythm in your life and in your day,” he said.
He said at first, he was scared in the beginning of the outbreak since there were no initial requirements to wear facial coverings. Even though wearing masks at work may feel strange, he says he feels safer now with the safety precautions that are in place.
When asked how he’s been coping with this new reality, he said spending time with his family has kept him grounded.
“The five days at home and five days at work is a bit bizarre and it was a bit hard to get used to, but I think it is a tremendous tool to just decompress and get away from the lab like sterilization that we experience. I get recharged and grounded spending time with my wife and kids ... My wife got laid off and my kids are out of school, so it has been amazing to get to spend time with them,” Lopez said, “It’s helped me cope with everything that has happened.”
While there may be some unusual and difficult changes to his day, a positive change is that there has been a tremendous show of support for grocers and their work from the community.
“People seem to be really grateful and most people seem to understand that there is more at stake,” he said. “I think people really appreciate what we are doing and it’s not something that I thought about before that we are doing something important.”