Iowa City grocers make changes to stay open during COVID-19 pandemic

John’s Grocery, New Pioneer Food Co-op, and Bread Garden Market have adopted new shopping and safety procedures in an effort to keep up their local business while also mitigating the spread of the novel coronavirus.


Tate Hildyard

John’s Grocery manager Doug Alberhasky poses for a portrait in John’s Grocery on Wednesday, April 1, 2020. Various small business and local grocers have had to change policies and practices due to mandatory social distancing. “We’re not getting nearly as many people coming in, but thankfully we’ve got a lot of email and phone orders so that good. A lot of people are calling in to order Lysol, Clorox wipes, and wine”.

Mary Hartel, News Reporter

Local grocery stores, deemed essential services by the government, will remain open amid widespread mitigation measures in response to the novel-coronavirus outbreak. Many Iowa City businesses are adjusting to meet the needs of their customer base and support the community amid social-distancing and self-isolation norms.

John’s Grocery, New Pioneer Food Co-op, and Bread Garden Market are among local businesses that have recently expanded shopping services and adopted enhanced sanitation procedures to accommodate the community’s need for essential resources during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“It has been interesting — to say the least,” said Doug Alberhasky, store manager at John’s Grocery.

John’s Grocery is adapting its normal hours in the wake of the pandemic, Alberhasky said. The store, which is normally open 9 a.m. to midnight, seven days a week, is now splitting its hours up into shifts.

The first shift, 5 a.m. to noon, is dedicated toward extra sanitation and stocking measures, and preparing phone-in and email orders, Alberhasky said. During the second shift, noon to 8 p.m., the store is open to the general public for normal grocery shopping, while the staff conducts intermittent surface cleanings to ensure customer and staff safety.

Alberhasky said it may be safer to shop at smaller businesses during the COVID-19 crisis, because doing so reduces mass circulation.

“The big box stores are frankly not a safe place when you have so many people congregating,” he said.

Alberhasky said public support and social media have both been critical for John’s Grocery to maintain business during this time.

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“It’s been amazing to see the outpouring of support not only for our business — for all of the local businesses,” Alberhasky said. “The best thing that I think could be said about coming out of this is that people realize how interdependent we are on each other and how much it means to support your local businesses.”

The New Pioneer Food Co-op has also adjusted store hours and safety measures, said Amy Hospodarsky, brand manager for the store. New Pioneer Co-op has locations in Iowa City, Coralville, and Cedar Rapids.

The co-op, which is now open daily from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m., has added a sanitation schedule and plexiglass at check-out counters, and taped out six-foot sections in lanes to ensure safety, Hospodarsky said. Additionally, each store location has set hours where only senior citizens or community members with high-risk health factors can shop.

Hospodarsky said an instant implication of the pandemic was a spike in New Pioneer Food Co-op’s sales through its online-shopping program.

“In the beginning of March we were seeing between three to five orders a day come through that program, and now we’re seeing over 150,” she said.

During this uncertain time, Hospodarsky said, the public’s choice to shop with local retailers such as New Pioneer Food Co-op benefits not just that business, but the Iowa City community as a whole.

“We work with a lot of local farms, and local bakers and local people that make their own products, and we put them on our shelves and we sell them,” she said.

When people shop locally, the money recirculates into the community, and supports local vendors, expanding their reach as well, she added.

Bread Garden Market has introduced free curbside pick-ups, daily meal deals, delivery services, and increased cold-food options, said floor manager Sarah King. It also reduced store hours, now 7:30 a.m. to 8 p.m., and closed it’s in-person dining per the governor’s declaration.

The store is operating with less staff than it usually does, King said, and has added stations with gloves and hand sanitizer in the aisles.

“We’re trying to accommodate everybody’s needs — we understand that people are trying to stay in too so we get it,” King said. “We’re trying to keep everybody safe when they do come in.”

King added that Bread Garden Market has increased its advertisements amid the spread of COVID-19.

“It is pretty hard on local stuff especially, because a lot of people don’t think necessarily to go to a smaller store,” King said. “They always think to go to Walmart or Hy-vee or Costco.”

King said the pandemic has so far made her realize the importance of supporting smaller, community organizations.

“I personally didn’t always buy local before,” King said. “[Now], I’ve been doing my best to do it when I can and support the business.”