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Marczyk Fine Foods on 17th Street in Denver. Photo courtesy of Marczyk Fine Foods

Food Shopping in the Time of COVID-19

How specialty grocer Marczyk Fine Foods and responsible producers like Niman Ranch and Frontier Trout Ranch are adapting to a new normal.

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“I have a hierarchy of needs: keep people safe, keep people fed, and keep people paid,” says Peter Marczyk, co-owner of Marczyk Fine Foods specialty grocers. As with other essential businesses across the country, the grocer has adopted social distancing practices: A greeter keeps occupancy to five shoppers per 1,000 square feet, with half of that capacity allowed from 10 to 11 a.m., when the store is reserved for those shoppers who are over 65 and/or with compromised immune systems. Carts, baskets, door handles, and high-touch surfaces are constantly disinfected. Reusable shopping bags are prohibited. All staff members’ uniforms now include gloves and masks.

By now, these changes are commonplace but how Marczyk has rolled them out is not. Marczyk Fine Foods has always been known for its cheeky, conversational marketing and tone. And if quarantine has taught us anything, it’s that levity is more important than ever. “We wanted to be less COVID and more clever,” Marczyk says. Visual cues like tape on the floor are enlivened with humor: Stay three baguettes away from next person; keep a Julia Child distance (the famed chef was six feet tall) between shoppers; imagine one and a half Danny Devitos between you and others. Of course, for those not willing to venture inside, there’s also curbside pickup, deftly named Stop, Shop, and Roll.

But there’s more to this equation than making people feel comfortable; it’s about harnessing some degree of normalcy—a rarity in these turbulent times. “We want to keep [the shopping experience] as calm and as normal as possible,” Pete says. “This is the same place you’re used to, it looks the same as it did three weeks ago, and every item is the same price it was three weeks ago.”

Marczyk Fine Foods has long championed both high-quality and local foods but this niche of the business has become an unexpected boon. “People wicked care about local product,” Pete says. “And if [a business] didn’t have local contacts going into this you don’t have them now.” Case in point, the grocer was already one of Altius Farms’ (an urban farm producer of greens) largest customers, but when the city-wide mandate closed dine-in restaurant operations, Altius offered its product to Marczyk. “They’re harvesting greens in the morning and we’re getting it in the afternoon,” Marczyk says.

Similarly, when Kermit Krantz of Frontier Trout Ranch in Saguache lost his Seattle Fish and Shamrock accounts, he called Marczyk. The answer? Yes, we’ll take them. Last week, the market sold 120 rainbow trout in less than a day. This week, Krantz is bringing 240 head. “People are rallying and doing things they wouldn’t have done three or four weeks ago,” Pete says.

While customer counts are down, shopping volumes are up slightly—a definitive sign that people are cooking more at home. This demand for quality product has also created new market share for national companies like Niman Ranch, a Midwest-based co-op of independent farmers humanely raising hogs, sheep, and cattle. Although already providers to specialty grocers, the company has shifted almost completely to retail. “It’s been a truly unprecedented time for Niman Ranch. We saw our restaurant orders dive overnight while retail demand simultaneously spiked,” says general manager Chris Olivero.

Over at the Department of Agriculture, marketing specialist Wendy White says this change in purchasing habits is also modifying how Colorado producers get their product into the world. “This unfortunate situation has allowed producers to diversify, especially for those that sell to restaurants. This is a whole new area for them and direct marketing is taking hold,” she says. She points people to the Colorado Proud website where a new function allows folks can see what’s available direct-to-consumer. She’s also quick to remind shoppers that buying local—be it produce, meat, condiments, spirits, or otherwise—funnels money into Colorado’s economy and directly supports our state’s farmers, ranchers, and producers.

Only time will tell if COVID-19’s unexpected effect on the food system—an intense devotion to local and well-raised food—will continue in the long-term. Pete and White certainly hope so. “This interest in local products gives the opportunity for people to learn about what we have available in Colorado and the variety of things we produce here,” she says, adding “just don’t go looking for Palisade Peaches in May.”

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