It was Friday the 13th, March 2020, when everything changed for David Schaefer, store director of the Lazy Acres Natural Market in Hermosa Beach, Calif., and his customers. The day before, Schaefer saw “droves of people” pouring into the store, many of whom filled more than one cart full of groceries. “The lines stretched nearly to the back of the store. By closing time, many shelves were emptied,” he recalls.
Then, just hours later, on March 13, “it was an all-day battle to keep up with demand, serving our customers, managing stock levels, throwing loads—it never stopped. It was unlike anything I have seen in my 35 years in the grocery business,” says Schaefer.
“Professionally it was heartbreaking,” he continues. “People were in a panic looking for essentials—anything they could grab to feed their families.”
One morning was particularly difficult. Schaefer encountered a young couple standing in front of his store’s completely empty egg case. In tears, they explained it was their daughter’s birthday and the only thing she had asked for to celebrate the occasion was scrambled eggs.
“I couldn’t help but cry with them,” says Schaefer, who went into the store’s prep kitchen in search of eggs. He found three, placed them in a deli container and presented them to the girl’s parents. “They were so touched by this gesture and are now ‘Lazy Acres shoppers for life.’ ”
In preparation for the daily challenges that defined the early days of the pandemic, Schaefer would head outside the store to address the crowd that would gather outside long before Lazy Acres’ 6 a.m. opening time. He’d advise shoppers on the stock conditions for certain items and answer their questions.
“It helped me to gather my thoughts and I felt so grateful to serve my community during such troubled times,” says Schaefer. “Speaking with customers over the past year, I was proud to hear over and over that my local store was one they felt the safest and most comfortable in.”
What was Schaefer’s biggest takeaway from the past year as a grocery industry professional on the front lines?
“My biggest takeaway was how the entire company came together to serve our communities,” he says. “From new team members to career grocery executives, we were able to see how nimble and flexible we could be. It was all hands on deck to be sure we could meet the needs of our customers. We had to figure out sourcing and distribution, scheduling and sanitization protocols and beyond, all while facing an unprecedented and unpredictable pandemic.
“Even though we serve Southern California, we are still a homegrown, tight-knit group company,” he adds. “Most of us have known each other for decades. And throughout it all, we were unified in a shared goal of keeping our team members and customers safe and taken care of.”
Looking ahead, while vaccines are coming, we’re not out of the woods yet, and Schaefer says encouraging social distancing remains a daily struggle.
“I keep telling my teams that what we do inside the store is vital to the well-being and safety of everyone,” he says. “As we now move into our phase of vaccinations, I continue to try to motivate everyone to stay healthy and do the right thing. We just need to continue on the path we’ve been on. It has served us well and brought us closer together—both internally as a company and externally as a member of the communities we serve.”
For more reflections on the past year, click here.