On the front lines–at a grocery store

Ed Gulvas

Just a month ago, when someone referred to the front lines they meant a war zone. Now with the COVID-19 outbreak, the front lines have shifted to the doctors and nurses as well as those who are keeping things going while we self-quarantine–including grocery stores.

Mike’s BILO, formerly Mike’s Riverside, has been an institution in Reynoldsville for many years. It went independent in January of 1985, owned and operated by the Gulvas family. Mike Gulvas, who passed away in 2013, managed the business for many years before turning over the reins to his son, Ed, and his daughter, Theresa.

When asked if he’s seen anything like the past few weeks at the store, Ed responded “Absolutely not.”

“The only thing I can compare it to is a one day snow warning,” he added. “But that only lasts a day…this has been constant.”

The rush began, he says on March 12, after reports on the media highlighted the danger. From Friday, March 13, through Saturday, March 21, the store was swamped, but finally slowed down at the end of the month. The pace has picked up once again with the Governor’s stay at home order. Gulvas expects the high volume of business to continue for weeks to come.

“We’re a necessity and we have to supply what we can. Unfortunately, our warehouse can only supply so much,” he said.

Gulvas says he works with several warehouses, with C&S Wholesale Grocer being the main supplier. He added that the store may not get what he’s ordered because of the nationwide demand.

“Frozen food, for example, we get 43% of what we ordered; meat department maybe 50%; grocery maybe 60%…normally, we get supplied 98% on a regular week with our orders, so we’re cut to half or less on a lot of our orders, but thankfully there’s another warehouse, McAneny Brothers, we deal with….that’s why we’re able to supply a little better than some of these other chains,” Gulvas said. He added that he deals with other warehouses as well, but with the demand spurred by the quarantine, “they can only supply so much.” The example he used? Toilet paper.

“We can order 100 and some cases of it, and we get only 10 cases in and that goes within the first hour. Same with paper towels.”

With schools closed, other sections that provide quick and easy meals for the students at home are getting hit hard.

Back to the toilet paper. Why is it the first to be sold out? Gulvas offered several reasons, including the media, social media and panic buying.

“It’s human nature,” he commented.

He pointed out the panic buying has slowed down.

“People are understanding that you can still come down to the grocery store and get what you need, for the most part,” he observed. He added, “Except for toilet paper.”

Gulvas said some staples, such as bread, milk and eggs, are in short supply at times due to the high demand. Fortunately, he said, in preparation for Easter, he ordered a large number of eggs before wholesale egg prices went up.

“You can never prepare for something like this,” he said. “As soon as we saw it hit, that Thursday and Friday in March, right then we started upping our orders, and we were able to get a fair amount.”

For example, the following Tuesday, the store received a large shipment of–toilet paper.

“That only lasted about a day and a half, probably, then it was wiped out, and once that was gone, our orders were cut significantly.” 

What is like for Gulvas and his employees to be on the front lines?

“You have your doctors and nurses out there…they’re really on the front lines, but our job, and we’re getting thanked by customers, and I thought, well, this is our job, we’re in the grocery business. Never did I expect in 1985 that we’d ever see this go on….Thank God for the people that I have because I wouldn’t be able to do this,” he said.

Gulvas pointed out that his employees are not missing work.

“They’re still coming in because they realize it’s a necessity,” he said.

Gulvas also had high praise for his customers who understand that the store is at the mercy of its suppliers.

“I’ve always said, Reynoldsville, we’ve got the greatest people in this town,” he said. “I’ve never had one person come up and complain because we’re out of something because they understand it.” 

Gulvas said the store is taking precautions, sanitizing two or three times a day anything that people touch, spraying cart handles, baskets and more. They even put up plexiglass sneeze guards for the cashiers. Gulvas has considered placing tape on the floor in the check out area for social distancing, but the customers themselves, he said, are taking care of that right now.

So each day, Gulvas and his employees sanitize, unload trucks, stock shelves, greet customers, work the checkout, bake donuts in the deli (among other things), and more so we can get what we need (maybe not toilet paper)  to help us endure these long days of quarantine.

Welcome to the new front lines.

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