On the morning of March 21, Whole Earth Center had no online ordering system that customers could use to purchase items from the store. What need was there? The independent natural foods grocery store had served the small town of Princeton for 50 years without ever having to provide a digital shop-from-home option for its customers.
Just 10 days later — which is to say, 10 days after Gov. Phil Murphy’s ordered New Jersey’s nonessential businesses to close and residents to shelter at home because of the coronavirus pandemic — Whole Earth Center’s online store went live.
Customers could order everything they needed from WEC from the comfort of their kitchen tables, then wait for word that store staff had prepared their orders for pickup. That rapid implementation is just one example of the ways the food industry came through for consumers in a turbulent, unprecedented situation.
Most people know the story of how grocery stores were blitzed in the early days of the coronavirus lockdown, when panic buyers crowded into stores to empty the shelves of everything from toilet paper and disinfectants to chicken breasts and spaghetti. As essential businesses, grocery stores and farm stores stayed open, taking in revenue when other service economy businesses were forced to close.
The pandemic presented stores like Whole Earth Center, as well as farms like Terhune Orchards in Lawrence, with entirely different challenges from the ones other businesses faced. Supply chains broke down as anxious shoppers depleted store shelves. Technological solutions proved inadequate. Stores had to be sanitized repeatedly and reconfigured to accommodate social distancing protocols.
Many people chose to stay home, rather than risk exposure to the virus by going out. Yet they still needed food. To provide uninterrupted service for their customers, stores had to come up with all new ways of marketing, selling, and packaging their goods. They had the added responsibility of keeping both staff and their customers safe — and do it quickly, all while operating in stressful conditions every day.
And they have innovated and adapted. They have found new supply chains while strengthening old ones. They have improved their online ordering systems (or in the case of Whole Earth Center, taken a whole new system from 0 to 100 in under two weeks). They have established and refined new pickup and delivery services.
And, perhaps most importantly, they have pulled together, management and staff, to come through for their customers at a time when we were depending on them most. All so that now, with the economy rebounding to at least some extent, they can think about coming through this dark patch with new systems, new business relationships, new customers and new and better ways to serve those customers.
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Whole Earth Center general manager Jennifer Murray says the store was extremely busy in March, when customers stocked up on nonperishable food items.
As a result of the rush, WEC experienced a lot of unpredictability in their supply chain. Wholesalers struggled to keep up with the increased demand for shelf-stable foods. Initially, there were difficulties procuring some packaged goods.
“Fortunately, many of our customers are also home cooks, and their flexibility and desire for fresh product helps overcome the unevenness in the supply chain,” Murray says.
Suppliers have informed the store that they can still expect to see long-term disruptions in the supply chain, especially on items whose ingredients continue to be difficult to source. But Murray says she and her staff work hard to find suitable substitutions wherever possible.
As late as mid-May, Murray remained concerned about the shortage of available local processors, especially for meat. Farms had animals that were ready to be processed and packaged, but butcher shops were at capacity, which put tremendous strain on farmers and stores to figure out how to get their products to market.
However, she says that as of June, local suppliers have been doing a great job fulfilling orders, and the backlog at meat processing plants seems to have eased for now. Even now, WEC is having some trouble procuring meat from national brands. But Murray says the local brands have been able to provide enough product to fill the gap.
“Fortunately, we have always focused on local farms and smaller brands for our dairy, meat, and produce, and those relationships have been very helpful in keeping us supplied in those departments,” Murray says. “Now that we have more produce coming in from local farms, the deli and our produce department will increase their local offerings, which is one way in which we are different from large grocery stores.”
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Terhune Orchards may be known for its apple orchards and fall harvest festivals, but the Mount family sells fresh produce and dairy and meat products year round at their farm store on Cold Soil Road. They also stock other artisanal items like jams, honey, maple syrup and pickled vegetables, plus their own line of New Jersey wines.
“We did have a huge surge for the first couple of months,” says Terhune’s Tannwen Mount. “We were working round the clock to fill orders and keep up with demand. We do try to work with our local food chain, and I think that helped in the crunch.”
What isn’t grown or raised on the farm is usually sourced from a network of suppliers the Mount family has developed over the last 45 years — many of them operating within a 50-mile radius of the farm. Even so, Mount says the supply chain threatened to break down when all suppliers had to gear up extremely quickly.
Many people continued to shop during the lockdown, but many were unwilling to go into crowded stores, particularly older people and those at high risk of complications from Covid-19. At first, Terhune set things up so that customers who did not want to shop in person could call in orders, then go to the farm for no-contact pickup.
It wasn’t long before they launched their Farm to Door program to take things a step further: for a $10 fee, customers who live within a 10-mile radius of the farm could call in their orders and have them delivered directly to their homes.
Where Whole Earth Center had no online ordering system, Terhune did have one in place — but it had been designed to market the gift boxes and baskets that they ship all across the country.
“We did not have an online farm store component, so we very quickly used that same platform and added the whole farm store in four, five days,” Mount says. “We were lucky to get that live in a manner where there wasn’t too much of a lag.”
Now Terhune is in the process of switching to a different system that can better serve the business and its customers. “The existing system that we had is not as user-friendly as we would have liked for our hundreds of items,” Mount says. “We are delivering, people are picking up orders at four different farmers markets where we are. So we need a system that is a little bit different than our gift box and gift basket system.”
Demand was so high for the farm-to-door service in the early days of the pandemic that Terhune could only promise a 48-hour turnaround on orders. Now that things have calmed down a bit, they are able to provide same-day service.
“We are always looking for new avenues to serve our customers and this is certainly a new one,” Mount says. “Especially in the surrounding community we have lots of elderly folks, and this service certainly makes sense for them.”
She envisions farm-to-door remaining a part of Terhune operations even after the pandemic is over.
“We’ve seen the volume going down a little bit but I don’t really think we foresee it going away,” she says. “People are busy. You know, I’m a mom with three kids. If I can get something delivered to my house, I would much rather do that so I know where my food is coming from, I know my farmer and I can support local businesses.”
While Terhune’s farm store business has been strong, it hasn’t all been positive for the farm, which normally attracts thousands of visitors throughout the year with special events, live entertainment, children’s programs, and seasonal festivals. They have been unable to host any of those events all spring and summer, and for that matter, have no real idea when they will be able to host them again.
“Terhune’s always been a community center,” Mount says. “Lots of things are different right now. But we have to move forward. We might not be having a big festival with lots of people here, but we are still busy in the fields, growing the vegetables and doing the things we need to do to provide the community with healthy local food.”
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Throughout the industry it quickly became clear in March that online ordering, as well as pickup and delivery services, if available, would help stores weather the coronavirus storm.
Large supermarket chains had online ordering systems in place that could be scaled to accommodate a surge in demand for those services. But Whole Earth Center had no system in place at all when the governor ordered the lockdowns, a fact that had to change, and change quickly.
And indeed, before March was out, the store had a robust new system able to accommodate all of its online shoppers
“It was stressful to undertake that in the midst of all of the other issues that we were navigating,” Murray says. “Especially how to protect our staff while also meeting customers’ needs. We staged it in slowly so that we could work our way through the logistics of packing orders and communicating with our customers.”
Now that it is done, though, she says Whole Earth Center is pleased to be able to offer the option to customers. Online orders today accounted for around 15% of all business at the store through May, and while demand dropped some in June, still 1 out of every 10 customers was ordering groceries online, Murray says, and she anticipates that customers will want to have multiple means of ordering from the store even after things return to normal.
Overall, Murray says she was amazed by and grateful to her staff members for the way they overcame the initial fear and confusion of the pandemic, and adapted to an ever-evolving situation.
“The emotional strain on them has been intense,” Murray says. “By and large, our customers have been gracious and grateful, which really helps.”
But she says the pandemic has also laid bare some uncomfortable truths about the world food supply chain.
“This moment has made very clear that our food system is fragile and in need of some serious rethinking,” Murray says. “Fortunately, thanks to the work of so many over the past decades to build a local food movement, our local farms and small-scale processors have been able to step up in a big way to get food to people.”
Over its 50 years in business, Whole Earth Center has always worked with local farms and food artisans.
“Our store has been the place where many small local producers have gotten their first access to the marketplace,” she says. “We will continue to work toward a more robust local food system that honors the important work of our farmers, especially organic farmers that bring so many benefits to our state.”