Stocked up

Meat, yeast, flour, sugar, frozen vegetables, canned and dry beans, and other pantry staples were often in short supply during the early days of the pandemic. 

Courtney Blood was better prepared than many when panic buying consumed shoppers in early spring.

The food service manager for Parkhurst Dining Services at Chatham University and Richland mother of two isn't the type to wait until she completely runs out of something to sprint to the supermarket. "When I'm down to my last pound or two of something," she says, "I start a grocery list."

So when scores of Pittsburghers clogged the aisles at grocery stores, piling everything from boxes of pasta and bags of rice to cans of beans and soup into their cart in a panic, she took comfort in the knowledge her family was already well prepared.

Her husband, Jeffrey, had followed the news about the novel coronavirus since February, and sensed early on that people might start stocking up on supplies. This is Pittsburgh, after all, where even the hint of an approaching snowstorm can cause a mad dash to load up on milk, bread, eggs and toilet paper.

Maybe, he told his wife, it was time to join the warehouse club Costco and do a little bulk shopping.

Their membership on Feb. 29 proved fortuitous.

"People began to panic-buy items throughout the grocery store and the production capacity of many manufacturers was limited," recalled Giant Eagle spokesperson Dick Roberts in an email. Those factors, married with a strained supply chain, impacted nearly every grocery category and created short-term unavailability of a variety of everyday and specialty products. Sugar, flour, frozen vegetables, canned and dry beans, ground beef — many of the staples we take for granted suddenly were in short supply.

Canned produce was uniquely affected, he noted, because demand outpaced the growing season, and restock was driven by harvest timing for many items like canned pumpkin and summer fruits and vegetables.

When coronavirus outbreaks soared at meat and poultry processing plants in April and May, causing them to shutter, meat also temporarily was a "get."

Due to their forethought, the Bloods were in good shape. Along with several gallons of milk they had bought "just in case" and divided into smaller containers, the couple's basement chest freezer held butter and various cuts of meat, bacon that got them through many coming days of home cooking.

Blood, who started sourdough baking during a maternity leave last year, even had an elusive pot of granular gold — a 25-pound bag of yeast. With time on their hands, many people resorted to bake bread during the pandemic, causing yeast to disappear along with flour, various cuts of meat and other staples.

One unexpected source for many of these items were Asian grocery stores. Nishat Kazi, who co-owns Rajbhog Indian Market and Cafe in Cranberry, is among those who saw her customer base grow during the pandemic. People who never knew the store existed were suddenly coming in for flour, milk and yogurt, she says. They also found an ample supply of lentils, rice, onions, peppers, spices and herbs like cilantro and mint — most at better prices than large grocery chains.

Indian food is largely lentil- and rice-heavy, and "because we sell so much more of it, it's cheaper," she says.

Other shoppers were simply adventurous. With more meals being prepared at home, people were expanding their palate and buying unfamiliar ingredients. "People were trying new foods," she says, and Rajbhog was happy to oblige. Kazi even added sliced whole bread, regular sugar and more milk to the inventory.

"The pandemic helped us understand there was a market for that, too," she said.

Lorraine Adams Hamman and her mother, Minda Adams, took matters into their own hands when the going got tough. When the price of butter skyrocketed, they made it in their Mapletown kitchen. They used a 100-year-old glass churn with a crank handle and gallons of heavy cream from Springhouse creamery in Eighty-Four, Pennsylvania. Even her 3-year-old son, Greer, did a lot of the cranking.

Hamman also made her own ricotta cheese for manicotti when she couldn't find it at stores, after watching a how-do video on YouTube. "It's amazing how simple some things are, and how we've gotten used to that convenience," she says.

The women live a half-mile from each other on the Greene County beef farm that's been in the family for generations, and bring a farmer's sensibility and practicality to most everything they do. So when meat was unavailable in stores the spring, all they had to do was to go to their basement to procure it. They not only have a stockpile of jarred whole hog sausage and jarred beef but also a large stash of canned tomato, beans, pumpkin and other vegetables.

"We joke that we have enough food for 10 years," Hamman says.

American ingenuity was just one positive thing that came out of the coronavirus, says Kobi Gershoni, co-founder and chief research officer at Signals Analytics, which provides data and market research to the food and beverage industry. Consumers changed their behaviors not just in the kitchen but also in the grocery store. A lot of those changes were digital.

E-commerce platforms like Shopify allows people to create online stores to share supplies with their friends and neighbors, while Instacart made grocery delivery and pickup extremely easy for those who didn't want to shop in person. The service — which came to the Pittsburgh area in November 2018 and delivers for Shop 'n Save, Aldi and Costco Wholesale among others — grew from 200,000 shoppers at the beginning of March to more than 500,000 nationally. Recently, it introduced a special Senior Support Service to help seniors as they try online grocery delivery for the first time.

Most grocery stores, along with restaurants, now offer curbside pickup for shoppers. Almost a third of U.S. households — about 39.5 million — have used an online grocery delivery or pickup service during the early days of the pandemic, according to a survey by the food marketing and sales consulting firm Brick Meets Click and the online order fulfillment platform, ShopperKit.

People who were tired of cooking all the time or found it stressful, conversely, flocked to meal-kit delivery services. HelloFresh nearly doubled its U.S. customer count to 2.6 million in the first quarter of 2020 compared to the same period in 2019, according to the Wall Street Journal. Blue Apron also reported higher demand.

"It's been a transformational year," Gershoni says, not just because of the acceleration of the change but because of the creativity it required.

Many Americans, he adds, also became more conscious about their food choices. The coronavirus shined a light on the importance of good hygiene and health, which in turn created more awareness of product equity.

Shoppers have started paying more attention to what they are buying, he says, and what's on the label with regards to fair trade, environmental consciousness and organics and naturals.

"For many people, it's been a journey of getting to know yourself," he says.