Open Pantry Food Marts of Wisconsin has been proactively working to protect its employees and customers at its seven Wisconsin locations during COVID-19.
The chain began taking action four weeks ago, sanitizing stores and offering personal protective equipment to employees including disposable gloves and N99 masks.
The wearing of N99 masks by store employees is now a mandated process. “The employees have really grabbed a hold of (that policy) and embraced it,” said Jim Schutz, chief operating officer for Open Pantry. “Those masks are worn by all employees, every hour, every minute that our stores are open.”
Open Pantry also extended the mask rule to vendors delivering products to the store. “Vendors now, when they come to the store, they must also put on a face mask and gloves that we provide to them to ensure that their visit in the store is safe both from the employee and from them, ” he explained. As Open Pantry looks to lead by example, the chain hopes the move will also inspire some vendors to institute the practice at their own operations, too.
Every two hours, Open Pantry employees take turns as outlined on a designated checklist, disinfecting the stores inside and out, including pumps and door handles.
“The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has actually defined touchable surfaces within retailers, so we are going through and disinfecting those with high-quality disinfectant every two hours that our stores are open,” Schutz said.
Being an essential business, the stores are open, but for limited hours — opening two hours later than usual and closing three hours earlier. Once the stores close, employees spend an additional 30-45 minutes completely sanitizing the store for the next day. The person who opens the store the next morning does an extra round of sanitation before opening the store.
When it comes to ensuring sanitation schedules and best practices in wearing masks and gloves are being followed at a time when social distancing is in place and upper management can’t spend as much time as usual visiting stores in person, Open Pantry is checking in using its camera system to ensure rules are being followed.
Plexiglass & Walk-up Window Installation
On Tuesday, March 31, the chain rolled out plexiglass shields in cashier areas to put the barrier up between the customer and the employee to further protect associates.
“But we still need to be sure that our employees are 100% protected. So we are doing everything that we possibly can to make sure, a.) that they’re comfortable; that when they come into work their families say, ‘Wow, what Open Pantry is doing for you is a remarkable, and I feel good being the spouse, the significant other or the parents of the individual going into a workplace where the company has taken a very, very bold, strong stance on ensuring the safety of that particular individual,’” Schutz said.
In the event stores are required to close due to future lockdown orders, Open Pantry is preparing to install walk-up windows in all the stores.
“We’ve assessed, priced, and we’re ready to install if we need to, walk-up windows that would allow our inside staff to take an order, run and grab some products, bring it back to the window, check the customer out and send it out the window,” explained Robert Buhler, CEO of Open Pantry. “Of course the pumps would be open as well and that may be the next step in this process. We don’t know, but we’ve located the windows. We’ve located the units to get them in. We know where we’re going to put them. We’ve got some construction people ready to do that, but we thought just right now we’ll try the plexiglass process.”
The plexiglass is suspended from the ceiling and hangs down.
“It’ll swing a little bit if you push it, but we don’t think people are going to do that,” Buhler said. “And it’ll just keep a good important separation at this point between our staff and the customer.”
Open Pantry is also showing its appreciation for employees by offering store managers a kit each day that contains boxed lunches for all employees. Each boxed lunch includes a sandwich, a choice of drink and chips.
Foodservice Best Practices
The state of Wisconsin, along with several other states, have banned self-serve products, including coffee, so Open Pantry bought its coffee dispensers behind the cashier area and is pouring it “barista-style” and receiving a great response from customers.
“The coffee is what Open Pantry is known for with our proprietary Willow Creek offering, so we wanted to continue it,” Schutz explained. “It’s just now behind the counter, which really adds a whole different touch to the whole process. I think a much nicer touch when the coffee is poured for you.”
“The roller grill and the other hot foods, those are out, but the prepackaged foods, the prepackaged sandwiches are still allowed, and so those in the open up coolers are still readily available,” Schutz added.
Fundraising In The Time of A Pandemic
At this time of year, Open Pantry traditionally is in full fundraising mode, raising money for the National Multiple Sclerosis (MS) Society. Knowing many customers are concerned about finances, Open Pantry explained to cashiers that they may need to scale back on donation requests. But cashiers, who are actively involved in the cause through Open Pantry, are passionate about the fundraiser and are finding creative ways to still champion the cause, including wearing MS badges on their uniforms to raise awareness for the cause.
“The associates at Open Pantry are still out there every single day, not only doing the things that are right to protect themselves and protect the customers, but they’re still moving forward with the ask for the donation to help find a cure for MS. I just find that incredible, and obviously we’re very, very proud of it,” Schutz said.
Serving the Public
Open Pantry plans to continue to monitor best practices in operating during the pandemic and do its part to prioritize the safety of employees and customers while continuing to provide for the needs of the communities it serves.
Schutz has found that older customers especially appreciate the steps the chain is putting in place to keep customers and employees safe.
“The 40-plus population is truly appreciating what is happening,” Schutz said. “Because today you can’t go without watching the news without hearing about the older population that is more risk for COVID-19, especially more at risk for the survival of it. So that generation or that particular segment of people is very much appreciative of what we’re doing to help keep them safe.”