PEPPER’S FOOD, a local family-owned business, has been a fixture in Cadboro Bay for 35 years. When General Manager Cory Davits was asked how the virus had affected business, he said, “In every way.”
Once COVID-19 restrictions were announced in mid-March, Pepper’s quickly got busier. “People went on a buying spree, and then there were too many people in the store,” Davits says. He started asking the customers to line up outside, allowing only ten customers in the store at a time.
Pepper’s has always offered online ordering either for customer pick-up or home delivery. Home delivery increased instantly, to the point that they now have three drivers driving all day to customers’ doors.
Pepper’s Food General Manager Cory Davits
Financially, Davits says business is similar, like other grocery stores and liquor stores right now, but the way they’re doing business, is dramatically different.
For one thing, “We have shortages. First it was toilet paper, then it was pasta and rice, then it was flour. Our suppliers are keeping up, but we are out of these things at the end of the day.” They get resupplied each day.
Staff safety and morale are big priorities. When restrictions were first announced, some staff were fearful enough of the virus that they opted to stay home for now. At the same time, the store was very busy, so they were short-handed.
“Everyone wants their business to survive. One person gets sick and the whole business shuts down. It was scary,” Davits says.
Davits says the community really stepped up. Pepper’s has a large loyal following of customers, and community members offered to work for free to help out. But while he gratefully said yes to the offer of help, he also said, no to the volunteering. “We will pay you.” And he notes that they are all still there. It’s a stressful time for all of the staff, he acknowledges, so Davits has since instituted “hero pay”—giving everybody $2 an hour more to work.
The store got so busy that staff morale suffered, and Davits could see that everyone was on edge. About two weeks ago (early April), they made the decision to close the doors to the public, and instead, “We concierge shop the orders for them,” he says. Customers have three choices: “They can email the orders in and we phone them when it’s ready and put it in a cooler in front of the store and they pick it up. They can email the orders in and we have it delivered to them. We ring the doorbell and leave it on the porch. If they just come to the store, we take the list and shop for them.”
He saw some differences immediately. “Staff morale is amazing. It is way more comfortable for them.” Safety protocols are in place to keep the staff safe. They work six-feet apart, and Davits says all of them are wearing gloves, which they change frequently, and everyone sanitizes regularly. It was hard to find hand sanitizer until Davits managed to secure a supply from an up-island distillery.
They ran out of plastic bags as people can’t bring their own bags anymore. Similarly, masks have been hard to come by. Davits ordered some on March 5, and they arrived seven weeks later. “We will have the staff masked when we reopen.” He also has a group making some bandanas for the staff. He anticipates requiring customers to wear their own masks as well once they reopen the front doors of the store.
“Lots of things have changed, some for the better, some for the worse, but we are adapting.” Down the road Davits says, “I think you’ll see businesses with line-ups for some time to come. It’s the only way to keep staff safe. It’s still scary, but we’re getting used to it.”
Marilyn McCrimmon is a native Victorian and freelance writer. She has written for Focus since its inception in 1988.