Deemed an essential business, grocery stores have been able to stay open amid the COVID-19 pandemic, but other industries haven’t been as lucky. Recognizing the struggles of the restaurant industry, HAC Inc., which operates 80 stores under various banners, including its largest banner Homeland with 34 employee-owned locations in Oklahoma, made a decision early in the pandemic to partner with local restaurants and sell their meals in its deli cases, with 100% of the money going back to those establishments.

“It gave customers a chance to make sure they were supporting their local communities, and customers felt like they were giving something back,” says Marc Jones, president and CEO of HAC.

HAC also invited local food trucks, which typically would park downtown or in office complexes but saw business disappear as people worked from home, to set up in its parking lots. “That was successful for a number of them, and again, just gave our customers one less trip to make,” Jones says.

HAC also partnered with several nonprofits, including Restore OKC, which runs a small market in a food desert near HAC’s headquarters in Oklahoma City, to help address community needs. Jones says the partnership with Restore OKC “really took off,” and that HAC will be opening a 7,000-square-foot store with them in another food desert later this year. Restore OKC will manage and provide most of the labor, while HAC will provide the grocery expertise.

“We were working very closely because of COVID and some of those conversations turned into us collectively recognizing the need for more than just a food pantry in that part of town and putting our heads together on how we could operate a store with them, Jones says.

“I have just been inspired and impressed every day by our employee owners,” Jones continues. “Everything [we have done during the pandemic], wasn't me sitting in the office saying, ‘Here's what we're going to do.’ These were ideas that came from individual owners or requests or suggestions.

“Our employee owners’ motivation … was making sure that our community was fed and safe and supported. … To see that heart in our employee owners, that, to me, is spectacular.”