Diary of an “Essential Worker” (Entry 4) The New Normal for Now.

It’s been ten days since San Francisco announced the Shelter in Place order and there’s a weird settling in that’s going on.  A few media-moments aside, almost everyone has changed their behaviors.  I even walked past the Dog Park yesterday and was all, “WTF?  Why is everyone playing hackey sack?  Did the Dead re-form or something?” Nope, just a bunch of neighbors out with their dogs and standing in circles six to ten feet apart.

It’s only been ten days of “stay at home” but it’s been about 4 weeks since the store felt normal. Our metering of customers gives a false sense of calm to the store during the workday.  Inside the store it feels slow and peaceful.  It’s like a normal day, albeit one where many people are wearing masks, gloves and the cheese workers cannot stand next to each other in our small prep area.  Well, technically, one person can price while another does dishes but that’s stretching it…

There is plenty of cheese.  I mean geez, just last year or so the US hit records for cheese in cold storage.   But make no mistake, this is a crisis for (among many others) small production cheese makers, stand-alone cheese shops, and distributors, especially ones who serve restaurants.  I have been getting many calls and emails from folks knowing that we are open, essential, and busy but I just can’t help many of them.  Customers are only buying certain cheeses right now.  Even with a long history, loyal customers, and (if I say so myself) a good cheese reputation,  big blocks of Parm, Cheddar, Jack, and Mozzarella are what is selling.  Pre-grated tubs and shredded packages. Lots of ricotta too.  I think a lot of lasagna is being made.

(Weirdly, the one cheese I didn’t expect to sell at such an astronomical level is paneer. Was there an “Indian Food for the Apocalypse” article I missed?  We always sell a lot of paneer but we sold three weeks worth in four days and I got shorted on my re-order.  We should be fully stocked again on Friday afternoon though!)

Things are so weird we ended up buying the ricotta that usually goes to Chez Pannise. I mean, we always carry the same stuff in retail, but still.

We haven’t sampled cheese to customers in over three weeks.  Initially (way back in another lifetime four weeks ago) I thought we could sample on pieces of parchment paper and keep things safe but after the first two customers licked their fingers I knew we had to stop. In a grocery store environment, it is next to impossible to sell higher-end, artisan cheese that is not well-known without giving samples.  I mean, everyone knows Cowgirl Mt. Tam in this city and its doing fine, but the new, amazing small-scale cheese we were going to promote in March?  It’s hurting.

Every distro in the Bay has contacted me trying to sell product they suddenly have no outlet for.  In a normal week I would be jumping at these offers.  But these are not normal weeks.  I just got off a conference call organized by the fine folks at The Monger where I was asked, among other things, how should reps or cheese companies approach buyers right now to sell the product they need to sell and can’t.

I didn’t answer as fully as I could have so I will write what I should have said. San Francisco was the first city to go on lockdown. I have no idea how many emails I have gotten in the last week that I haven’t even responded to.  I don’t plan to ever read them, really.

To be fair, I am in a unique position as a buyer, floor worker, and a member of the emergency committee set up to respond to the crisis, but I have had no time at all to deal with extras. I have been underwater and, until recently, without real days off.  Vendor deadlines and out-of-stock products change daily and I have missed more deadlines (that I didn’t see had changed) in the last two weeks than in the last 25 years. 

So my advice?  If you don’t have a previous relationship, don’t contact buyers for a week or two into their lockdowns.  We are creating dozens of new procedures and policies that all needed to happen yesterday in order to safeguard our health and the health of the community. We may have at-risk or sick family.  We are likely saying goodbye to some co-workers for the duration because they need to stay home to care for their kids or because they have underlying health issues.  My reaction to a sales pitch from a stranger that isn’t taking that into account is likely to be hostile.

But now, nearly two weeks in, I can start to see things stabilize in their own weird ways.  We will soon start to brainstorm how to support cheesemakers who need support, likely starting with the ones we already work with.  But I/we will also be open to other possibilities, assuming that we don’t start to lose a significant percentage of our workers.  Also, tbh, many of our cheese workers, unable to work in pairs as usual, are doing duty in cart sanitizing, customer metering and crowd control shifts that we have not previously had.  

I saw the first scale-scale family cheesemaker shutting down for the duration yesterday.  They are well-established, make fairly perishable cheese, and sell to a lot of restaurants.  There will be more.  It’s a very hard business for the small-timer in good times, so some won’t be back.  That thought haunts every monger right now.

(If cheese workers have any questions about safety procedures feel free to email me directly at gordon.zola.edgar at gmail dot com. I will respond when I can.)

(Remember everyone, what I write are my own opinions and not necessarily the view of my other co-workers or the workplace as a whole.)

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