The shopkeepers providing a lifeline in the time of coronavirus

Local convenience stores and specialist food businesses have stepped in where supermarkets can't to help customers cope with the new normal

David Josephs outside Panzer's
Panzer's deli is a favourite with locals. Owner David Josephs is keeping business ticking along, while increasing deliveries

Have you been relying on your corner shop lately? Perhaps you've rediscovered your local baker or grocer when supermarket stocks have run low? 

The coronavirus outbreak has altered our food buying habits and put pressure on supply chains, but tenacious small businesses are plugging the gaps. Shopkeepers and shop workers have kept shelves filled, adapted to social distancing rules and quickly launched or expanded delivery services. Instead of an undignified supermarket tussle for the final pack of loo roll or last bag of pasta, many consumers are seeking out the basics in family-run convenience stores and local high street shops.

We talked to the owners of food stores from across the country about managing demand and supporting their communities in this most unusual of times.

The bakery  

Shelleys at Highcliffe Bakery deals in delicious goods – think freshly baked loaves, rolls, pies, pasties and cakes. Its owner Gary Marlow bought the 36-year-old business two years ago and moved it from Dorchester to Highcliffe. The coronavirus outbreak has led to the closure of local food markets and the cancellation of large events, both of which usually present a significant proportion of Shelley’s sales.

Yet the business ploughs on with Gary working 20 hour shifts in order to bake enough for the local community. “We are surrounded by elderly people and those classified as high risk,” he said. “They cannot leave their homes or [secure] a supermarket delivery. We are supporting them as far as we can by offering a free delivery service.” The business is also looking to secure additional supplies of eggs and milk to offer customers alongside with its usual stock. “The Brits know how to help each other in a time of crisis, and that’s what we are trying to do,” Gary added.

Shelleys at Highcliffe Bakery is keeping locals stocked in sweet and savoury treats

The deli and wholesaler

Panzer’s delicatessen, founded in 1944, is a local institution close to St John's Wood High Street, London. For owner David Josephs it holds fond childhood memories. “I had been taken to Panzer's in a pram by my grandparents on a Sunday morning to shop for bagels and hand-cut smoked salmon,” David said. “It really is the centre of the St John's Wood community and the locals very much see it as their own store.” The shop remains open and David and his staff have swiftly adapted to social distancing measures. Meanwhile, home deliveries have shot up by 750 per cent in the last fortnight. “We are having to completely change the business model to cope with the online demand,” David explained. “We have had wonderful feedback and a lot of understanding from customers – they appreciate that [with us] they don’t have to wait online for hours and then be told they can have a slot in two months.”

David also owns a wholesaler called All Greens, which usually supplies 200 catering businesses and quality restaurants in and around London, such as Ottolenghi. When business from this sector ground to a halt on March 20, David began selling fruit and veg boxes directly to consumers. A website was launched within 48 hours and was ready for orders on March 26. As well as offering a sought after service and helping the wholesale business to survive, this project also allows customers to give back to the NHS. They can add a £5 to £60 donation of fruit and vegetables, which All Greens will match and then deliver to staff at hospitals around London.

Panzer's Deli, a local landmark

The village shop

Barkers of Huby is a community-owned and volunteer-run village shop and post office in Huby, North Yorkshire. It is overseen by local entrepreneur Denise Howard. In response to the pandemic, the shop’s committee launched a “Good Neighbour Scheme” on March 23. In its first five days, 30 volunteers had already signed up to deliver supplies to house-bound residents in Huby and the bordering village of Sutton. 

“The feedback from volunteers and customers has been extremely positive,” Denise said. “Local children have been writing cards and drawing pictures to include with the shopping, so there is a real sense of community involvement in caring for others.” The shop, meanwhile, has seen the number of visiting customers increase by about 50 per cent since the outbreak. Keeping it well-stocked has been a challenge – each week volunteers make three to four trips to the cash and carry to bolster supplies. Barkers has also adapted to lockdown measures: only two customers can enter at a time and markings outside the shop help to keep queuing locals six feet apart. Denise added: “It has been a mad, mad week but our brilliant management committee [and volunteers] are making a difference every day to local people.”

Volunteers are offering a vital service at Barkers of Huby

The corner shop

Amna Saleem’s parents usually run their family store, Tollhouse Extra, in Uddingston, Glasgow, while Amna and her adult siblings have full-time jobs away from the business. But the pandemic has seen Amna’s parents stranded abroad. Now her younger brother is manning the shop while Amna and her sister pitch in. Keeping the store open and stocked is a challenge at this time. “We’re doing several trips to the cash and carry each day for essentials, when we only used to have to go twice a week,” explained Amna.  The siblings have also taken measures to avoid stockpiling, limiting customers to a small number of certain, basic items. “We’d rather most people are able to get enough of what they need,” Amna added. “We have a lot of elderly customers and vulnerable regulars who we need to look after.”

They have also made steps to keep the store safe. “A particularly surreal day was when my brother used masking tape to mark out safe distances for customers, like some sort of skit in a sitcom.” Amna and her siblings have found time to offer a little extra help to the local community too. “When we knew this was getting serious, the first thing we did was donate vital items to charities for homeless and vulnerable people. We knew they would be hit the hardest.” They are also offering NHS staff free tea and coffee in store. “They have been touched by the small gesture,” Amna said. “We wish we could do more.”

The grocery 

Jason Shaw and his wife Leann took over their Chester-based grocery in July 2019. Hoole Food Market, formerly Mr Fruity’s, launched a vegetable box delivery service alongside the physical store, which immediately proved a hit. “Our very reason for being is not to compete with supermarkets, but to do everything that they can’t do really well,” explained Jason. He and Leann go to the market each morning to pick the freshest stock, although recent supermarket demand has diminished wholesale supplies. Last week, the couple travelled further afield to Liverpool docks to source goods.   

They’ve met another need with the introduction of dry pasta. “We installed some extra free-flow dispensers in mid February, which was incredibly fortuitous timing.” Hoole Food is providing a welcome alternative to nearby supermarkets. “Judging by the support that they have given us, and particularly the kind words of encouragement and lovely feedback we’ve had from all customers, many who are new, I hope they feel that we are providing a valuable service,” added Jason.

Hoole Food Market has added dried pasta to its offering

The convenience store

In Kenilworth, Warwickshire at least one store is offering a rare resource – same-day food deliveries. Kenilworth Budgens, an independent business operating under the Budgens brand, is receiving orders through an app. For the moment, orders placed before 8pm will be with the customer that day, according to owner Avtar Sidhu (known as Sid). Sid has been rising at around 4am or 5am, then sometimes staying up until midnight to complete deliveries. The store has been fulfilling around 75 to 80 a day. Its team of 12 is also working hard to ensure shelves are stocked and customers safe. Order payments are made online and deliveries left outside customers’ doors (a detailed specified at the point of order).

Keeping the bricks and mortar store well-stocked has put the business under “huge strain,” according to Sid. He’s met the challenge by using a mix of larger and local suppliers. Sid has also tweaked opening hours – 7am to 8am is now designated as shopping time for key workers and the elderly or vulnerable. The store is also awaiting a large order of hand sanitizer, which Sid will give out to NHS staff for free. He said: “I feel shattered, but kind of energised, it’s been amazing to be there for our local community and play the role that we are.”

Have you noticed your own local initiatives with small businesses doing innovative, creative and kind things to adapt? Share your stories below or email [email protected] with pictures.

Read more: Welcome to a Brave New World: Heartwarming ways hotels, pubs and more are helping their communities