Kensington: How the Kensington Community Food Co-op has Adjusted to COVID-19

Kensington Food Co-op manger Mike Richards said the store must adhere to new coronavirus safety guidelines while keeping co-op members and employees safe.

The Kensington Community Food Co-op remains open, with new rules for shoppers to keep everyone safe from COVID-19 (Brian Creech/Philadelphia Neighborhoods)

Grocery stores are one of the few businesses open still despite shutdowns related to COVID-19, but shopping at a store has changed drastically. Responsibility for managing risks related to grocery shopping during a pandemic frequently falls on grocery store managers and staff. 

The Kensington Community Food Co-op (KCFC), at the corner of Lehigh and Frankford avenues, has changed store policies and hours to make shopping safer for customers and staff. A recent addition to the neighborhood, KCFC opened on April 17, 2019, and operates as a member-owned food co-op. As such, customers can become members by buying equity into the store and therefore gaining certain benefits, such as discounts and involvement in the governing process of how the co-op functions.

Mike Richards, general manager of KCFC, is responsible for maintaining COVID-19-related health standards. In order to do that, KCFC changed certain store policies as well as added restrictions to maintain social distancing standards. The store also now offers special shopping hours from 9 a.m. to 10 a.m. everyday for seniors and those who are high-risk or immunocompromised, and then opens from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. for other customers. 

Shoppers and cashiers are now separated by a wall of plexiglass at KCFC, and everyone is expected to wear a mask. (Brian Creech/Philadelphia Neighborhoods)

How has the co-op changed in how it’s run and [regarding its] policies since the restrictions on businesses were put in place due to COVID-19? 

MR: So we’ve sort of been out in front of the restrictions a little bit. We closed our cafe space down, I guess a day before the state ordered all those things to be closed. And I think the city was a few days behind that. So right now when you walk into the store, you’re greeted with an immediate “stop-and-read” banner that instructs people to sanitize their hands, to stay six feet apart from one another, to let people know to respect people’s distance, and that we’re limiting the number of shoppers that are in the store. 

Have customers been following the guidelines that you’ve placed?

MR: The thing that I’ve had the most trouble with, which I didn’t mention, was that we’re not allowing anyone to bring in their own bags from home. So no outside bags of any kind. That’s actually gotten the most pushback from that.

Signs stipulating new COVID-19 rules greet shoppers at the entrance of KCFC. (Brian Creech/Philadelphia Neighborhoods)

Normally, do people bring their own bags? 

MR: Yes. So normally, we encourage using as many reusable bags as possible, to just cut down on the amount of waste that we’re producing as a co-op. And so it is a big shift from where I guess we were, which is maybe why there’s such a big pushback from it. 

Overall, we deal with a much friendlier base of customers. So overall, people have been very understanding and very appreciative of the measures and things that we’ve put into place. 

What is the co-op having staff members do to ensure that they don’t get COVID-19? 

MR: So we have a shield that goes across the entire checkout counter. So most of the interactions that we have with the folks is from behind that plexiglass shield. Other than that, they’re instructed to [do the] same as everybody else: six-feet apart, be mindful. They wear gloves, they wash their hands, they sanitize. We just got masks yesterday, so the staff will start to be required to wear masks.

How has this impacted employee shifts? Are they working more hours or fewer hours?

MR: The employees are working about the same number of hours. We haven’t seen a decrease. So, we have a cafe space and we did close that. So the people that were working in the cafe have now shifted over and moved to the store to pick up some hours. So there’s more hours in the store now, but overall the total hours for the staff has pretty much remained the same. 

How has COVID-19 affected the supply of various products? 

MR: Two weeks ago, when this thing sort of started, people were really buying a lot, and so it was hard to keep up with the demand. And also, we had some restrictions from our distributors that we could only order a certain amount of cases because they were just inundated with orders as well and weren’t able to supply, or even just physically put things onto a truck to deliver to us because the demand was so great. 

Were there any specific products that were selling out faster than others?

MR: Oh, sure. So there’s the standard any sort of cleaning supplies, paper towels, toilet paper, any sort of paper products. We’ve certainly seen a run on that. Other than that, it’s just been like an increase in the same sort of things that we’ve been selling. 

A statue of Benjamin Franklin greets passersby from the KCFC window at the corner of Lehigh and Frankford Avenues. (Brian Creech/Philadelphia Neighborhoods)

What are some concerns that you have about local business in general during this time? 

MR: I mean, my concern is that local businesses are not going to be around. It’s going to be harder and harder for folks to stay open as people are sort of bunkering down more. It just means that there’s less traffic in so many restaurants or other small local businesses. The concern is what is left when life goes back to normal. 

We work with a lot of local businesses. We have a shop local program that promotes a lot of small local businesses. A lot of these businesses are not operating currently. There’s a printing place, Fireball Printing, is next door to us, The Head and the Hand bookstore. Both of those are closed indefinitely. And it’s unclear whether they’ll be able to reopen. So when we’re trying to make our end of the community a little bit more thriving and just the sustainable sort of section of Kensington, this is certainly making that way harder. 

In Kensington, how have you seen local residents adapt to the new policies and social distancing standards? 

MR: I don’t live in Kensington, so my only real interaction is with folks in the store and we take it pretty seriously. So this isn’t so much of a problem in the store. But I think that when you’re talking about local folks, there’s certainly a huge homeless population in Kensington and there’s a whole bunch of things that go along with that. I think that the police are trying to do what they can, but I don’t know. People are on varying levels of this social distancing thing. I mean, some people are still not taking it that seriously. I see that in Kensington and in my own neighborhood.

What concerns do you have for the co-op throughout all of this?

MR: I mean, the biggest concern I have is for the staff that work there and the people that come into the store. You know, [that] they could get sick. That’s really the thing that weighs most on my mind, and trying to keep everyone safe as possible. 

How do you think that these changes will affect how KCFC operates after the pandemic is over? 

MR: My hope is that we’ve taken this whole thing very seriously and are trying to do what is safest for both the staff and for everyone that walks through the door; staff and customers. And we’re hoping that people recognize the level of seriousness that we’ve brought to this and that translates into people hopefully realizing that we do this on a daily basis. It has certainly driven more traffic to the store. A lot of people have found us that maybe would not have had this whole thing not happened. 

We opened about a year ago, the co-op opened about a year ago, and has sort of been struggling along through this last year. So while this has been a lot to deal with, it has also been very good for business. 

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