Category Archives: diary of an essential worker

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.)


Diary of an "Essential Worker" (Entry 3) Quiet

I got up at 4 AM the other night.  My dog Schnitzel is off his regular schedule too and needed to go out.   He’s actually, oddly, been practicing social distancing himself by refusing to go to the park during the day for the last week.  At 4 AM though, that’s what he wanted.

4 AM is just about the most quiet time in San Francisco anyway, people are home from the bars and restaurants.  Most people haven’t gotten up yet for their jobs. I thought I would be the only person out at that time.  But no… there were a few walkers.  I live near a hospital so I thought at first they would be healthcare workers going to or from their shifts but when I got closer (not too close!) I saw they were just regular folks, just out walking.  People afraid to go out during the day?  People so full of anxiety they couldn’t sleep?  I don’t know.  We didn’t talk.  I didn’t recognize them. We gave head nods from a distance.

I get up at 5 AM for work most days. That’s not a busy time either, but usually as I make my thermos of tea, I see other lights going on in the houses I can see from my kitchen window.  This week: nothing.  I am the only one. It’s quiet in the way the city never is.

It hasn’t even been a week (it will be later today) since Mayor Breed gave the stay-at-home order.  It’s good to remember that because it feels like a lot longer.  This has been a grocery crisis for about three and a half weeks, but societal countermeasures only started six days ago. This is not meant to be a blog about details of COVID-19  –others will do that better and I cannot keep up with the news on a daily basis when working– but that means that even if everything we are doing is working, we will still see a huge rise in illness this week and the week after.

That one light is always on. Usually most floors of most buildings have at least one light on at 5 AM.

Societal activities have stabilized a little in their particular weirdness of the moment. It took a few days for people to get it but most people understand the concept of social distancing now.  I know everyone has anecdotes where people have violated personal space, but look at how far we’ve come.  These concepts are new to everyone outside of public health.  Not all of it is obvious.  Even though I have been working on this for the store, it took another worker to point out that our paired cheese workers, myself included, were working too close together.  I was working on the big problems: customers in the store, customers outside the store, our break rooms, etc. and hadn’t even thought about some of the smaller work programs that we have done forever. That’s not a fault.  That’s an acknowledgement that we all need each other’s help changing our patterns.

It was only yesterday that it felt like San Francisco really understood social distancing. People got the idea of standing in line 6 ft apart pretty quick but changing the smaller things took more time.  Having no real traffic makes it easy for people to step out into the street to avoid getting too close to each together.  Since we were among the first cities to do this, I hope the learning curve is accelerated elsewhere.  Not that it’s time to think about this, but we are learning a lot for the next pandemic too.

I worry that once these new procedures become regular, people will start becoming more irritable.   When things are new people have a tendency to pitch in and excitement carries you forward.  When you start settling in for a siege, morale can be in trouble.  Remember everyone, we only have each other.  You might need a 4 AM walk alone,  but remember to stay plugged in as much as is healthy for you and pitch in where you can.

Today is the first day in a long time (probably seems longer than it is) I am having a second day off in a row and it is doing wonders for my mental health.  We need our quiet moments to recover from the uncertainty outside. I’ll be up at 5 tomorrow to carry on.  Stay safe everyone.

Diary of an "Essential Worker:" (Entry 2) How Are You?

Many, if not most,  folks I work with have cried at least once at work this week. I know I have. We are all exhausted and emotionally raw.   I cried when a regular who is a senior told me how much she appreciated everything we have done to make shopping more safe. Co-workers and I have quickly walked away red eyed after sharing appreciations of each other because we needed to go back to work and couldn’t break down.  I fucking sobbed at my desk when I saw (on break) that my neighbor’s schnauzer died.  I loved that dog and I probably would have cried anyways but it unleashed a torrent of pent up anxiety and fear and sadness.  I then cleaned off the keyboard with the isopropyl alcohol solution now on every desk.

In scary times, emotional reactions don’t come out in clear ways to appropriate targets.  It’s good for all of us to remember that.  Overwhelming reactions, inappropriate anger, the urge to police the way others are handing the pandemic knowing that you don’t have full knowledge of other people…. We’re going to see a lot more of this as the stay-at-home order goes on.  We’re going to see it in ourselves as well.

We have had very few upset customers considering how much things have changed and how fast.  Of course, not everyone had heard of our senior/at-risk hour before it started and were not super happy about having to wait an extra hour to get into the store.  Others hadn’t heard that we had to reduce hours to close at 7 PM. However, almost everyone has taken the changes in stride.  Some, even though inconvenienced, expressed support for which I am grateful. The joy of working at a community institution maybe… I have heard horrible stories, anecdotally on the internet but while we have a few angry people every day so far our community has risen to the challenges. Some of the yellers have even returned after shopping and apologized.  Looking for inappropriate reactions within yourself and handling them is one of the ways we will get through this.

It’s almost unbelievable how quickly things have changed in day-to-day reality.  Ten days ago I was crowd-sourcing info on how Italian grocery stores were handling the situation.  I saw pics of people standing in lines six feet apart, heard they were metering customers into the store, read the phrase “social distancing” for the first time.  My first thought:  This just won’t work here.  Ten days later it’s the norm.

Limiting customers in the store has decreased the work stress 50% at least.   In effect what we have done is transferred the check out line to outside the store.  People wait outside (6 ft. apart) but, much of the time, can walk straight up to a cashier when they are ready to check out. We have the other stresses – our family, our friends, our community, our health —  but at least our work environment is more peaceful and manageable than the previous two weeks.

A little bunched up in places, some of those folks are walking by,
but mostly 6 ft apart.


I mean aside from the fact that every ache, pain, cough, or sore throat causes a minor panic.  No matter what the actual symptoms of COVID-19, the excess monitoring we are doing on ourselves also breeds anxiety.  The day we introduced metering I came home sure I was getting sick because my throat was sore.   Still, something in my mind was all, “this is familiar.”  I wracked my brain and realized my throat felt like it feels when I return from a tense Giants game.  Right.  I was yelling through a mask doing crowd control at the store for a couple of hours.  I’m fine. So far.

We don’t know what the future will bring.  Will 50% of our work force be out at some point?  How can we further do harm reduction for worker safety? We have changed so much in a week, what will we be doing in two weeks from now that we never imagined? All this uncertainty is kind of my weakness, to be honest which is why I have felt especially emotional and teary. There’s a reason I have stayed in the same apartment and job for 25 years!  I’m not super into change. But I am working my way through it and doing ok.


I think one thing that is really tricky for us  – especially in a cooperative where we are used to talking to each other in person a lot – is the lack of a culture of distance.  Usually it’s our strength.  What most people want to do right now is just what we cannot do – get everyone together for a membership meeting to talk about our feels and hash stuff out.  Social distancing can become social control and authoritarianism (a.k.a. a conventional workplace) if you are not careful.  We will need to develop new procedures internally as quickly as we’ve developed them externally. On the plus side, old grudges are falling by the wayside.  I have newfound respect for people who pissed me off a decade ago.  We need each other.  Old grievances seem petty.

Also, another thing that helps – both on a perspective level and to fight xenophobia – talk to immigrants. Co-workers from other countries can provide a much-needed perspective. Sometimes you just need to hear things like, “Eh, I lived through a coup.  This isn’t so bad.”

 The last time I teared up at work yesterday was when a customer who I have never talked to came up to me already crying.  She said we were heroes. I don’t accept the “hero” label – save it for the medical folks and first responders on the front lines – but she meant it and I heard she meant it.  That was enough to keep me going for another day.

All you grocery workers reading, just remember, the work you are doing is important.  The community is important.  You are important.  Be proud of this.

Stay safe people.



I prefer the black gloves when available.

Diary of an "essential worker"

I thought I’d dust off this ancient-looking blog and start to keep a diary of this time of virus and anxiety from the perspective of a grocery worker.  While most people I know are off work right now, fearing for both their health and their jobs, we are working all the time.  In fact I have been wanting to write something for days but haven’t had the time or energy. It seems important to document a little of this to remember later.  If there is a later…

Six foot distances marked for safely waiting in line. Pic taken at 6 AM.

It’s nice to be officially considered an “essential worker” for once.  I mean, I’ve always considered the big picture of what we do – bringing food to the people – essential. And I always knew that in the back of my mind, because I like reading history, that grocery workers have had a special place in times of turmoil and trouble:  wars, disasters, general strikes, etc.  People need to eat.

One of the reasons I like working with food is because it is such an essential need for everyone. But that has never been more clear than the last few weeks when reaction to COVID-19 has made our store busy in an unprecedented way.

Three weeks ago I was comparing it to Y2K, but we surpassed that a long time ago. 

Two weeks ago I was joking that this is all the work of the food holidays with none of the fun.  It was fun to say that at the time.

This week, after it was clear that a shelter in place order would be given, things amped up even more.   I have no comparison for it at all.

Stay a cart away from each other, please!

I’ve worked at this co-op for almost 26 years.  With holidays, it may be extra busy for a while but there are breaks.  As a buyer of cheese – a less perishable perishable – I am used to a pattern of buying where you usually put on the brakes after a certain amount of days because you can predict a slowdown.  After two solid weeks of solid busy all my experience told me that it couldn’t keep going like it was… Instead of braking I have my foot jammed on the accelerator.

On a micro level – a level I still have to operate on in my daily work life — I get itchy when I have less than three whole wheels of Parmigiano Reggiano in stock.  Right now everything we have is on the shelf. We are doubling the amount of commodity blocks we cut at a time and still running low or out before we can replenish. Because of the nature of cheese in cold storage, we have less out-of-stocks than other departments but the nature of distribution these days is “lean” and “efficient” which means more disruption in the supply chain right now.

This may be different in other stores and other places – a large-scale worker-owned co-op is a special place —  but I am seeing people stock up and buy a lot, but not seeing hoarding. I am seeing co-workers trying to figure out the safest ways to do things in an unknown environment. I am also see us working way too much to try and meet demand. I am seeing regular customers here on unusual days, their patterns disrupted. Mostly, I am seeing people be extra caring to each other, even if in fleeting and physically distant ways.  I am also watching people trying to interact without the familiar touching or even facial expressions when people are trying to stay 6 ft. apart and half the folks I see are wearing some kind of mask.

There are still moments of beauty.

We have instituted measures that even a week ago I didn’t think we could implement.  We are only allowing a certain number of people in the store at once.  We have a line to get in where people are waiting six feet apart. We have shortened our hours (for a list of like 10 reasons). We are trying to reserve 9-10 for seniors and most at-risk members of the community. We are offering gloves to every customer.

But we are making these things up as we go.  Some won’t work out and may cause more hassle before we get them worked out.  Everything right now is on a trial basis and a social experiment.  There will be lines and the few things open will take longer. That’s our (temporary) reality. We’ve come a long way in a short time

And let’s not kid ourselves, this is intense. There is a frenetic energy because of the crowds and the multiple legitimate anxieties everyone, including those of us still working right now, is holding right now. We are all pretty exhausted.  Essential, but exhausted.