Mike Houston, General Manager
Last week as virus concerns rose and my typical commuting method – the Red Line – reduced service I did something out of character. I borrowed my in-law’s car to get to and from the store. Safer for my family, I told myself. So, no surprise that the car with 212,000 miles died on me at Cedar and Blair last Thursday morning.
As I put it into neutral to push it up a slight grade into a waiting parking space about 30 feet away, I realized why muscular men on TV push cars, not grocery store managers.
Out of nowhere, a car pulled behind me, put on its flashers and a stranger had his hands on the hood ready to push before I could explain the problem. Doing the right thing, in the middle of a pandemic. Doing the right thing for someone he’ll probably never see again.
Monday was the hardest day of my professional career. I had never considered closing a grocery store to the public. Making sure people have access to healthy and delicious food is in my DNA. The decision goes against everything TPSS stands for. And yet I know it was the right one.
I know we shocked you. I shocked myself. I know we let some of you down. I feel let down myself. The outpouring of love and support from this community as we took an unbelievable step was tremendous. I can’t tell you how much it means. If TPSS is the beating heart of the community, you are all our veins.
Our unbelievable staff of 50 hardworking employees have been doing everything to serve our customers. We’ve been running at 52% beyond normal sales capacity for 26 straight days. Holiday-level volume without the holiday afterwards. We rang up 960 people per day on average for 26 straight days. We helped our community fill their pantries as our national health agencies recommend that we all do so. National news outlets have called grocery workers ‘essential’ ‘front line’ and even ‘emergency personnel.’ We take pride in that.
But this virus is already here, and our store is 4,200 square feet. No amount of protection, extra pay, reassurance or kind Facebook words changes that. So, I made a decision.
I know other stores aren’t doing this. Actually, I’ve disagreed with the way most chain stores have responded to this crisis. Special shopping times do not protect our vulnerable populations; they shouldn’t be encouraged to believe it is safer at 8am than noon. A big area chain sent out an email tonight about safety protocols we put into place weeks ago. None of it is enough. The Co-op makes decisions based on what is right for its members and staff, not what looks good in a press release.
I was not willing to continue to risk the safety of our staff and shoppers. Our staff is all healthy and my aim is to keep them that way.
So, we’re going to change. We’re going to adapt. We’re still the same store with the same products and the same values. We’re just going to do things in a way that offers the maximum amount of safety for all of us at a time when nothing about life is normal. We remain committed to being your community grocery store.
My staff and I have been working literally non-stop to get an online system built from scratch that will allow us to serve you. We know online shopping isn’t for everyone, and we’ll be here to help you navigate the change. So will your neighbors. They will talk you through challenges on the phone. They will add some of your items to their online cart. They will stop, put their flashers on and put their hands on the hood.
As for the car, I had it towed to our neighbor. RS Automotive across the street from the Co-op took care of the car. Now, I can continue to be safe for the most important people in my life and safe to make sure your Co-op is a good neighbor. Neighbors watching out for each other, doing the right thing, even in the middle of a pandemic. That’s the spirit of Takoma Park.