Grocery Q&A with Hornbacher's President, Matt Leiseth
With the world emptying and shelter-in-place and social distancing becoming the new normal. The most crowded place has become the grocery store. People have been stocking up on food to prepare or to satisfy their panic. The demand has heightened with the close of restaurants and bars offering take-out or delivery as their only options.
To get a better perspective of how the grocers are being impacted, GNDC recently sat down with Matt Leiseth, Vice President of Operations for West Region Coborn’s, President of Hornbacher’s. Along with Hornbacher’s, Coborn’s also operates Cash Wise stores.
GNDC: Are you able to keep up with the demand for food?
Leiseth: The short answer is yes. Even in my own personal shopping, there has not been an item on my list that we have not had in-stock. As far as food, there will be items along the way that we may run out of. It is those types of minor inconveniences that will happen, but as far as someone being able to feed their family and have a great variety of options, we are in great shape.
Has the demand for any particular item surprised you?
The toilet paper thing is a head-scratcher from just the amount that people started to buy early on. Hand sanitizer makes sense and falls into line. I was a little shocked at how much hand soap went out, because I would have thought most people had that in their house already. Those are the items that we need more of right now and we are trying to bring in. Across the nation, there are not enough hand sanitizer manufacturers that produce large quantities, so that may take a while to catch up with demand. There are great options emerging to answer the demand, for instance, Proof Distillery here in Fargo is starting to make hand sanitizer. Besides selling it in their storefront, we would like to get from them to sell to the public.
What have you have done differently to keep shelves filled?
The first thing we did was reduce our hours to 7am to 10 pm versus open 24 hours. In order to recondition (EDITOR’s note: this means restock and clean) the store we needed to get more bodies working on this. It was more efficient by having the doors closed.
We were seeing unprecedented sales. On a normal night, you might need one truckload of product to have the store properly stocked. That includes grocery, frozen food, dairy, produce. Stores that required one truck now need three trucks to get the store back in shape. There just was not enough time under normal conditions to recondition a store when you had triple the load being restocked. When you close a store at night you are able to do what we call “spotting in an aisle” so instead of being clean and neat you can just slide cases of beans down where they need to be for stocking. This is not done under normal conditions because we don’t want to injure our guests or hurt their experience.
How have you been able to keep up with staffing needs? Are part-time employees working more hours, or are you adding staff?
A little bit of both. With the governors of North Dakota and Minnesota trying to have people shelter-in-place while keeping essential businesses open, we sent out a note promoting that we are temporarily hiring. People who are unable to work at their jobs have responded. We have hired about 200 in North Dakota. Those are temporary positions that we need to help us stock and take care of guests. There are many people across the state who cannot afford to lose an income in the family. It is working out well for both of us as we need the help. It can serve as a safety net for someone who is collecting unemployment but is still able to work part-time.
Did your stores provide grocery delivery before this happened?
Not every store provides delivery, but every store offers store pick-up. Delivery has easily tripled.
Anything different with the way pick-up goes?
The nice thing about pick-up is that it is an online process where the customer goes online and places an order, the team in-store shops and then the customer drives up to the designated spot and sends a text. The team [member] walks out with the order and loads their car. So, that is a pretty safe interaction, COVID or not. The credit card is taken online beforehand so there is no need to exchange cash or card The biggest thing with delivery, for the stores that do it, is that now we ring the doorbell and leave the groceries. This is a change that we have made for the safety of guests and team members. We used to provide a higher level of service by walking in the door and putting the groceries on the counter, but for the safety of both parties, we are trying to eliminate that interaction. We want to keep our team members safe and the increased deliveries are probably for the more vulnerable population. We don’t want to be sending anyone who is potentially ill-even if it is just a cold, into a home to put a vulnerable person at any risk.
Has anything you do in your stores changed regarding cleaning or safety?
The good news is that in the foodservice industry, we already know how to clean. There are some rigid processes in place for how to clean surfaces and how to avoid cross-contamination. We didn’t have to retrain people on what “clean looks like,” or how to use the right sanitizing cleansers. The big thing that we have changed is that when we close the store overnight to help us with stocking, we have done more deep cleaning across the store. An example of that is wiping down every cart each night with a sanitizing solution, wiping every door handle, wiping the surfaces of the frozen and refrigeration cases. Any surface that would get human contact – check stands and credit card readers, we are knocking it down overnight to make sure that when the doors open the next morning, it is the best it can be. We are making sure that there is no surface that is untouched by a cleaning solution.
You mentioned some unique ways you have gotten some staples. Describe what went into making those arrangements?
Pasta, flour, and sugar saw a huge increase in the last two weeks. As people were thinking about shelter-in-place or even panicking about being stuck at home for a long period of time. Those were some of the key items that were really punished from a shopping standpoint. We reached out to the State Mill and arranged for direct truckloads for the east and west sides of the state. American Crystal Sugar did the exact same thing for us, and so did Dakota Growers Pasta. By doing this, we were able to bypass the warehouses in Fargo and Bismarck. This took pressure off them and allowed more room on our trucks for other food to get into the stores.
Is there anything special that you are having cashiers do for the exchange of money?
We have put up barriers at every check stand between the keyboard and where the guest would stand. When the guest gets to what we call the check-writing station, that is not a face-to-face connection anymore and the barrier gets us closer to that six feet. That point is the most vulnerable time for a guest or team member to cough. When there is free time, we are wiping down the check stand with sanitizer. Cash is dirty. Whether it is cold and flu season or now with COVID-19, it is best practice to clean your hands after handling it. If you are touching money and then licking your fingers or touching your eyes, that is where danger can come in. That is why we continue to preach to our team social distancing, wash your hands regularly and keep your hands away from your face.
Do you have any special hours for the vulnerable populations who want to come in and shop on their own?
Absolutely. We have been communicating to our communities that the first hour of the day is a great time for these people to come in and shop. When we open the doors at 7am, that is when we know that everything has just been cleaned. From a surface standpoint, it is going to be the best it could be all day. Also, at that time, traffic is a bit slower. This makes a safer environment for them to do their shopping. Now that restaurants and bars are closed, we are also finding that 8pm to 10pm is another good time. Once the few people who are still working at 6pm are done the store really dies down, so that is another good time for that population. We are not marketing this, but anyone that I have a conversation with I remind them that that is also a good time to shop.