Before the COVID-19 pandemic, sisters Patricia and Lorien Johnson had a typical workday of heading into their family-owned grocery store, Mountain Valley Foods in Kalispell, at 7 a.m. to prepare juices, smoothies and to-go lunches while chatting with customers throughout the day.
But after the shelter-in-place order went into effect, they made the difficult decision to shut their doors and shift to curbside grocery pickup to protect the community and their staff.
“I think it’s important that people realize the gravity of the situation,” Patricia said. “And having our staff exposed to customers for eight hours a day … we weren’t comfortable with that.”
Before the Johnsons decided to lock the doors, they took careful sanitation precautions and staff taped the floor at the checkout lines to encourage customers to stay six feet apart. But Patricia says people weren’t abiding by social-distancing rules, which ultimately led them to limit their services.
“I looked around at my staff, and not one person is worth them getting sick,” Patricia said. “That’s just how important my staff is to me and my customers. I couldn’t imagine if we became a vector for the spread of (COVID-19).”
Now, the Johnsons and their staff head into the store wearing gloves and masks to open the store for calls and pickups at 10 a.m. They purchased six additional cell phones so that customers can always get ahold of someone at the store. Staff members carry one or two phones with them and place orders consistently throughout the day until they wrap up at 7 p.m.
“It’s a lot more work, but our customers have a lot of trust,” Patricia said. “It’s truly about their health and safety as well.”
Patricia says they were able to keep most of their staff, which now sits at 17, after cutting store hours and job duties, although one staff member chose to take a furlough while a few others decided to leave to protect their health.
But the new store routine has allowed the Johnsons to explore different business opportunities, too.
Mountain Valley Foods launched online shopping on their website in early April, a project they had been working on for three years.
“We thought, ‘Now’s the time,’” Patricia said.
The shopping page includes in-stock items, and once the shopper adds everything to the cart, the order is flagged and the customer can set up a pickup time.
While Patricia has received positive feedback from the community about their new operations, she misses face-to-face interactions and conversations with customers every day.
“We’re just immersed in our community of people that we service every day, two or three times a day,” Patricia said, choking back tears.
Mountain Valley Foods operates Monday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. For more information or to place a curbside pickup order, visit https://www.mountainvalleyfoods.com/.