Amid absorbing the strains on the supply chain and operations, the complexity of complying with a panoply of shifting federal state and local safety recommendations and the ridiculousness of the debate over the consumer’s willingness to comply with them, all the while adjusting for changes in the economic picture and shopping habits and wrestling with the questions of when to implement pay raises, and when and if to retract them, it’s easy to overlook that this has all been triggered by a virus that can and does kill.
Of the more than 140,000 Americans who, as of when the August/September WGB print issue went to press, have died from the coronavirus, no small number were colleagues and counterparts in the supermarket and food industries. How many? That’s hard to tell. The industry has been reluctant to say. The United Food and Commercial Workers keeps a running tab, but mainly on its members.
The lives lost to COVID-19 is a story no one has been entirely comfortable telling, but it reaches the young and old, sick and well, entry-level greeters, wealthy bosses and middle managers, meat cutters and meat processors, deli workers and cashiers. In the pages ahead, WGB tells the stories of just a few of them, starting with Steve Ravitz, the recently retired leader of Ravitz Family Markets.
Photograph courtesy of Ravitz Family Markets
‘His Hobby Was People’
Steve Ravitz, an affable son and grandson of a grocer who brought his own kids into a thriving business known for innovation, customer service and community support, was 73 when he passed away of coronavirus complications in a Philadelphia hospital in early April.
He had fed South Jersey for more than 50 years.
Steve had recently retired as the leader of Ravitz Family Markets, passing on its five ShopRite stores and one PriceRite location in the Burlington and Camden counties of New Jersey to three of his sons. His loss was a devastating blow to generations of shoppers, employees and family who’d come to know him through his company’s local stores and community support; regionally through his frequent appearances on Philadelphia-area TV; and in the trade, where friends and colleagues knew Steve as a warm and enthusiastic grocer, as well as a champion of fellow members of Wakefern Food Corp., the formidable ShopRite stores cooperative. Countless others encountered him as friendly stranger holding court at restaurants in Center City Philadelphia, where he’d retired, and in Margate, N.J., where he spent many summers.
“Steve was a really dynamic industry leader, but also a really constructive collaborator within the complex idiosyncrasies of the individual dynamics of the Wakefern cooperative owners,” says Burt P. Flickinger III, who had known Steve for years through Flickinger’s Strategic Resource Group business. “Wakefern likes to call itself a ‘symphony of soloists,’ ” Flickinger added, describing the 50-plus independent family owners of the cooperative. “Steve [was] a real maestro in getting those soloists to play the proverbial symphony. He always did what’s best for the Wakefern cooperative, even if it wasn’t the best for Steve Ravitz.”
Faith in his family, and in the collective strength of the co-op, allowed Steve in recent years to walk away from the
grocery business and enjoy an easygoing retirement that mirrored his even-tempered and personable reign at the head of the company, which endured more than its share of tumultuous moments over the years but was always there for the community.
“It had never been hard for him over the years to delegate and let go, and let us all learn from our mistakes,” says Jason Ravitz, 48, the oldest of Steve’s kids who today runs the business with his younger brothers Shawn and Brett. Steve’s brother, Ron, who also helped lead the business, is in semiretirement.
“My father was a regular guy. Both in Margate and in Center City, he liked to hit the local restaurants, get a good seat by the bar, and talk to people,” Jason says in an interview. “He liked socializing. Someone would pull up a chair, and he was all ears, inquisitive, and if what they had to say piqued his interest, he’d talk to them. If not, he had his friends who worked at these places. Judging from the outreach after he passed away, we know he touched a lot of those people, more than I ever knew.”
Steve could talk all night about sports—he was a fanatical Philadelphia Eagles and Sixers supporter—but his interest was just as strong in hearing about what motivated people to be successful, taking special interest in entrepreneurs he’d often help in small ways, Jason says. “He loved going to Eagles games but if was too cold, he’d leave at halftime, go to Del Frisco’s, catch the second half there and talk to people.”
“That was his thing,” he says. “He wanted to learn about people. He didn’t necessarily have a hobby. He didn’t play golf. I think his hobby was people.”
These “people skills” served Steve and the communities where he did business very well over a career that began working alongside his demanding father Stanley, whom Jason described as an “old school” North Philadelphia shopkeeper. Stanley’s stores, which were then associated with the Unity Frankford cooperative and its Shop ’n Bag banner, had grown from a business founded by his father, a Russian immigrant to Philadelphia. The Ravitz’s business moved across the Delaware River to the Cherry Hill, N.J., community in the late 1960s, reportedly after Stanley was held up a knifepoint in turbulent North Philadelphia. In the early 1980s, with the Unity co-op struggling, and with kids nearing the age at which they could begin working in the industry, Steve convinced Stanley to abandon Unity for the Wakefern co-op.
“That was a career-making decision that really helped him bridge the generations,” Jason says. “That ended up being a very prophetic move because it saved the family business.” Steve wound up serving as an officer and enthusiastic supporter of the co-op for many years, forming deep and lasting relationships with some of the co-op’s other entrepreneurial patriarchs, such as Dominick Romano and Jimmy Sumas. Even after he retired, Jason says, Steve continued to attend Wakefern board meetings, if only to enjoy the camaraderie of his counterparts.
Jason—who like his dad, learned much of the grocery business at the elbow of his grandfather and is raising his own kids now—says he recognizes today the combination of pressure and ambiguousness his father must have felt transitioning the business. Though his dad’s gentle attempts to steer Jason away from the grocery business were ultimately fruitless (“I had the bug,” Jason confesses), Jason believes his dad’s personable management style was crafted in part to demonstrate there was a different way to do business than his own father had. Jason confesses to recognizing much of his excitable grandfather in his own demeanor (the same of his youngest brother Brett; Shawn, 46, is the calmest of the three current leaders, he says). In times of crisis—like the combination of pandemic chaos and social unrest that accompanied his father’s passing this year—Jason gives plenty of thought to how Steve would have handled it.
“He was a good crisis manager. He was calm,” Jason says of his father. “I can hear him saying, ‘Slow down. Slow down. Take a deep breath.’ … The interpersonal relationship part of [management] was probably the most important thing to him that he passed onto us: Being accessible to our associates and managers, having an open-door policy, being visible in the stores. Remembering you’re not better than anybody else. And no matter what the situation is, no one gets stressed out in public.”
It was Steve’s demeanor that ultimately got Ravitz Family Markets through other periods of difficulty, Jason says. A 52-day strike by union workers in 2001—called shortly before the 9/11 attacks that year— brought personal, emotional and business anguish together. Before the dispute was settled, Steve’s father Stanley had passed away. “It was horrible,” Jason recalls. “But my father was able to rehabilitate the company and its people, and build the company back from scratch.” Opening three stores in a single day in 2007—the result of a local takeover of former Stop & Shop stores—was another chaotic moment where Steve’s steady leadership was a lifesaver.
Jason recalls these stories when asked about the ways he’s helped to lead the company through the current crises. He advises his fellow grocers to take cleanliness extremely seriously—“don’t go 100% or 110%, go 500%,” he says.
In the height of the shelter-in-place orders and widespread anxieties among shoppers, Ravitz Family Markets kept social media channels updated constantly with information on stock conditions at stores, but also, videos of its employees dancing and having fun as a message to shoppers that stores were safe amid fear and panic buying.
Steve was also a big fan of fun in stores—and he could laugh at the industry too. This made his stores a go-to set for popular Philadelphia TV news reporter Don Polec, whose pieces celebrated off-kilter stories. One Polec piece shot at a Ravitz store focused on “choice fatigue”—the seeming absurdity of the overwhelming selection in grocery stores. Other retailers might have kicked the crew out or felt defensive, but Steve on the report gives a knowing smile and proudly relates “We figure we carry about 125,000 different items here.” Another Polec report visited a Ravitz ShopRite as it hosted a Valentine’s Day produce-aisle wedding given away in a drawing—a promotion Steve had cooked up himself.
Successes liked these helped to provide not only for the Ravitz family but for the communities they were in. Through entities such as the Ravitz Family Foundation, Steve endowed a charitable fund in his parent’s names at his synagogue, and was tickled to have also been honored for his philanthropy by Catholic charities. He supported area outposts of organizations like JDRF, Boys & Girls Clubs of America, and Jefferson University Hospital, where he had a board seat.
These organizations and others participated in an outpouring of grief upon learning that he’d become a victim of the COVID-19 pandemic. His son Jason is still processing it all. He believes his dad was probably infected through the crowds packing Philadelphia for St. Patrick’s Day celebrations, just prior to a shelter-in-place initiative he feels came too late to the city. Steve was hospitalized for 13 days before passing away, a period Jason describes with palpable anguish and helplessness: The business his father had built was under incredible stress and cried out for his steady guidance, but he lay dying on a respirator, with his family unable to visit him.
Today, Jason is determined not to let the industry forget him—or for people to underestimate the danger of the condition that took his father’s life.
“I have this sense that in some crazy way, he kind of stood in front of the bus to save other people,” Jason says. “But the problem is we have such a short memory in this country, and we’re so easily distracted. I keep telling people, the way this feels is that the world has moved forward, and I’m still stuck dealing with this. And I just hope people remember that this can happen to anyone, and it will happen to more people.”
Like many thousands of counterparts across the country early this year, Randy Narvaez informed friends via social media of the special role he was playing in the nation’s fight against the coronavirus crisis. In March, he’d added a custom frame to his profile picture that read: “I can’t stay at home. I’m a grocery store worker.”
The words surrounded a portrait of a man with a full face, short dark hair, and a mustache. He’s wearing a blue hooded Denver Broncos sweatshirt, one small hoop earring and sunglasses. He’s seated in a car. The reflection in the sunglasses reveals outstretched arms holding a phone: He’d taken the shot himself. A glance at his timeline reveals Randy liked this particular setting for his selfies, as there are several others like it.
What’s going on in these shots? The routine of them suggests it’s likely Randy snapped these on his way to or from his place of work. He’d spent close to 30 years commuting to and from various King Soopers stores around greater Denver. When the coronavirus pandemic arrived in March, he was a scan coordinator at the Capitol Hill location of the Kroger-owned banner. The COVID-19 virus took his life on May 17. He was 51.
Co-workers, union contacts and work acquaintances he’d known over the years so admired Randy that they gathered for a socially-distant memorial for him in June, meeting in a parking lot then driving their cars, as he had for many years, in a procession to the store where he’d worked. Described by co-workers as “a big teddy bear” and a “gentle giant,” Randy was among two workers at that particular location to have passed away, and among three King Soopers workers honored in the procession, which was organized with the help of his UFCW local: James McKay, also a Capitol Hill co-worker, and Karen Haws were others.
“It was only after he passed away that I understood how impactful he’d been at work, judging from all the people I heard from who he helped and coached along the way. The outpouring and love and support was pretty amazing,” says Nikki Trujillo, Randy’s sister and only sibling, four years his junior.
Away from work, Randy was a fanatic supporter of the Denver Broncos football and Colorado Avalanche hockey, a music aficionado with a taste toward heavy classic rock and R&B, a loving father—his daughter Ju’Lisa Shafer, is 32—brother, and uncle. “He’s responsible for instilling a great love of music in me,” says Nikki, recounting any number of concerts she attended with Randy, including Metallica and Bruno Mars.
Leon Marin, an immigrant from Mexico and a protective father of four, worked at a Whole Foods Market in Swampscott, Mass., and was a noted volunteer for social justice issues around Lynn, Mass., where he lived.
Leon was most active with a group called Neighbor to Neighbor, and also collaborated with Lynn United for Change on issues such as housing for many years. In a video posted by Neighbor to Neighbor, Leon, speaking in his native Spanish, describes how he reached out to the organization at first to help resolve an issue with one of his sons despite having trouble speaking English.
“We knew him as a kind, thoughtful, humble, and hard-working man. He was incredibly dedicated to his family and made extraordinary sacrifices for his children,” United for Change said in a statement. “Leon should still be alive today. His memory will live on, and inspire us to continue the struggle for justice and for a kinder and fairer world.”
Leilani Jordan, a 27-year-old greeter at a Giant Food store in Largo, Md., suffered from cerebral palsy and other health issues requiring her to use a service animal, but what drove her was a concern to help others, relatives said. That’s why she continued to show up at Giant and pitch in to help shoppers navigate the heavy traffic that came with the onset of the pandemic. She kept at it until coronavirus symptoms forced her out in mid-March. She died at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center on April 1.
Leilani’s mother, Zenobia Shepherd, said her daughter loved church, animals, singing, the color purple, and butterflies, which gave her Leilani’s pet name, Butterfly.
A message in an online fundraiser for her funeral expenses said, “She loved helping senior citizens, disabled Americans and rescuing animals that need just a second chance at love. At [the]young age of 27 years ... she always did her best trying to help anyone without any judgment. Her love for mankind was totally pure.”
“My Butterfly deserves to go home like a warrior,” her mother told the Baltimore Sun. “A woman warrior that fought for doing the right thing.”
Gladys Cortes, a single mother and artist who made ends meet by taking a job at the prepared food counter at a Lidl-owned Best Market store in Islip, N.Y., was 48 when she passed away of coronavirus on April 9. Her death helped to spark a movement among fellow Latino workers concerned with working conditions in the industry that would soon intertwine with the minority justice movement that swept the country.
Gladys, according to a New York Times article, moved to New York from Puerto Rico with her parents when she was young. She worked for a time building merchandising fixtures for stores, and took a job at Best Market about a year before her death to help provide for a 13-year-old daughter and her 85-year-old mother.
For much of America, Vitalina Williams has become the most prominent name associated with grocery-store workers who passed away from the coronavirus. The 59-year-old woman, who worked part time for a Market Basket store in Salem, Mass., and full time at a Walmart in Lynn, Mass., passed away April 3 and was the topic of heart-wrenching stories in The Washington Post and other news outlets as the country was getting its first real evidence of the danger to workers, and while grocery stores were racing to become safer places for them.
In these stories, Vitalina’s husband David—also a grocery store worker at a different Market Basket—told of how he also tested positive for the virus but suffered only mildly, how he dreamed that his wife, who grew up in Guatemala, could one day afford to retire there, how they enjoyed cooking together and his wife’s touch in their vegetable garden, as well as his anguish over what might have been done to affect a different outcome.
“Why does she have to be the example?” he asked in the Post article. “Why couldn’t it have been someone else?”
While grocery stores were getting a crash-course in coronavirus safety, their suppliers in the meat processing world were undergoing a crisis every bit as intense. A cascade of worker infections at plants across the country snarled production and brought the nation’s supply of affordable proteins into an uncomfortably bright light. In Greeley, Colo., the disease took Tin Aye at age 60 on April 17.
Tin and her husband had come to the U.S. from Southeast Asia in 2007 and raised a family in Greeley where she took a job at a JBS beef plant a decade ago, according to UFCW Local 7, the union representing workers there. “It was very hard work, but she didn’t want to change jobs,” her daughter San Twin told CNN. “She relied on her co-workers that spoke the same language and they would give her rides to work because she couldn’t drive.”
Tin was among at least 86 workers at U.S. meat processing facilities to pass away from COVID-19, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention figures.
“She was a very humble, sweet and giving person,” Twin said. “If she saw a homeless person on the street and hungry, she would give them her food. ... She loved taking care of people, but especially her family.”