Kentucky: Local Specialty Food Store Adjusting to New Normal

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At a time when larger grocery stores see surging demand, specialty grocer Lotsa Pasta has had to cut hours and staff. 

One of the smaller grocers trying to navigate the new normal, the small deli and bakery which specializes in Italian groceries, is located in the St. Matthews neighborhood of Louisville, Kentucky. Quentin Hale, 26, is the son of owners Vicky and John Hale. Quentin Hale manages the store and said it has seen an uptick in some areas, such as grocery delivery. Still, the store has had to close its most profitable section, the deli counter, in an attempt to limit contact with customers.

“A lot of people know us as their lunch spot,” Quentin Hale said. “We can serve up to a couple hundred sandwiches a day, so having to close the deli counter has been a huge blow for us. Beyond lunch, we also serve most of our prepared foods from behind the deli counter. I’m trying to figure out how we can incorporate some of what we do from the deli into the part of our shop that has remained open.” 

While some larger grocers like Kroger have experienced a need for more employees during the pandemic, Lotsa Pasta has had to let go almost half of its staff. 

“Most of our staff worked behind the deli counter or in our bakery behind the store,” Quentin Hale said. “Unfortunately, since our shop is so small, we can’t really let people in to do their normal shopping. So, we’ve been limited to having people phone in their orders and then we bring it out to their car. That’s really cut into our bottom line and we’ve had to let go of about a dozen workers.”  

John Hale, 64, opened the shop 38 years ago and has seen several ups and downs in the grocery business, like the 2008 recession. He said 12 years ago when the recession hit, people didn’t have as much extra money for specialty items like imported meats and cheeses, but they were still able to keep all their staff employed. This current crisis is unlike anything he’s seen in the nearly four decades he’s been in business. 

“We weren’t really sure how this would affect us when this first hit,” John Hale said. “I figured maybe we’d slow down a bit, but I wasn’t planning on having to change our hours and our operation entirely.”

Another unexpected roadblock has been keeping shelves stocked with items usually imported from other states. The store typically gets specialty items from Chicago, but it’s been more difficult with travel restrictions in place. 

“Not being able to stock up has been a challenge,” John Hale said. “Unlike the giant grocery stores that restock using national suppliers, we depend on much smaller operations. Once the travel restrictions and the social distancing guidelines are lifted, we should be back to normal. Until then, we’re just hanging on like everyone else.” 

A spokesperson for the St. Matthews business association said in an email that the challenges faced by Lotsa Pasta are being seen by most business in the area.

“We’re trying to provide all the support for our local business owners that we can,” the email read. “Unfortunately there’s no playbook for this scenario. We are trying to take it one day at a time.”

Vicky Hale, 60, who owns the shop with John Hale, is worried about how her former workers will manage during the pandemic. Many of those who were let go are either in high school or college. 

“They’re kids,” Vicky Hale said. “I wish we could have kept them all working full time, but it just wasn’t possible. I really hope they get through this okay.”

Text by Trevor Griner.

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