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Maryland grocers struggle to satisfy suddenly huge appetite for delivery; breweries and ice cream makers jump in

Detric McCoy, who supervises the new home delivery operation for Taharka Brothers, packs an order from their sub-20 degrees freezer. The company is named after Detric's father, Taharka McCoy, who worked with the founder of the company. Taharka Brothers home delivery service, started during the coronavirus pandemic, has been very popular. April 14, 2020 (CQ on name)
Detric McCoy, who supervises the new home delivery operation for Taharka Brothers, packs an order from their sub-20 degrees freezer. The company is named after Detric's father, Taharka McCoy, who worked with the founder of the company. Taharka Brothers home delivery service, started during the coronavirus pandemic, has been very popular. April 14, 2020 (CQ on name) (Amy Davis)

During normal times, customers could order groceries online from Green Valley Marketplace and expect delivery in as little as six hours.

Little has been normal, though, in the weeks since the spread of coronavirus forced Maryland residents to rethink how or even if they go out to shop for food. Consumers in far greater numbers than ever before are choosing to order groceries in as they wait out the pandemic. The wait for a delivery time at Green Valley stores is now two to three days.

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“We have seen a tremendous shift to online shopping,” said Rick Rodgers, chief operating officer of B. Green & Co., which runs Green Valley and Food Depot supermarkets in the Baltimore metro area. With the increased demand, he said, “we strongly recommend customers place their orders a few days in advance.”

As grocers struggle to satisfy consumers’ suddenly large appetite for delivery, other local food and beverage makers in Baltimore are jumping into the business, bringing everything from ice cream to beer and whiskey to consumers’ doorsteps.

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The surge in demand quickly overwhelmed some stores and businesses that couldn’t have anticipated the sudden change brought on by the outbreak and subsequent stay-at-home orders. While overall retail sales plunged more than 6% last month in the U.S., sales at grocery and beverage stores jumped nearly 26%, the National Retail Federation said Wednesday.

Many food retailers say they’re still ramping up hiring, trying to balance inventory and urging customers who’d become used to instant deliveries to plan ahead and expect longer waits. Some businesses are plunging into delivery for the first time, trying to make up for lost retail business.

Even online giant Amazon has found itself overloaded. The company announced last weekend that new Amazon Fresh and Amazon Prime grocery customers would go on a wait list. Amazon, which delivers from warehouses and Whole Foods, said it is prioritizing existing customers.

Giant Food, the Baltimore area’s largest grocer, called the migration of customers to online ordering “remarkable.” Sales have grown exponentially from February and doubled from this time last year.

“Customers who are quarantined or being asked to remain home now use Giant Delivers and Instacart in record numbers,” said Gregg Dorazio, the grocer’s director of ecommerce. “A service that in the past may have been considered a convenience is now essential for many in our community.”

But the sudden high demand has meant limited pickup and delivery times.

“What used to be same-day or next-day turnaround is now several days or even a couple weeks," Dorazio said. "We are doing everything we can to increase capacity and maximize the number of customers served. "

Giant has been hiring new drivers and store shoppers and brought in additional delivery trucks, while Instacart also announced hiring across Maryland and Virginia.

Wegmans, which also uses online app Instacart for delivery and curbside service, expects to double its online business before summer and believes demand will continue to grow. The grocer advises looking for slots earlier in the day and choosing five-hour windows versus shorter time frames.

"We encourage customers to keep checking for availability, as windows do open up based on [Instacart] shopper availability,” said Tracy Van Auker, a Wegmans spokeswoman.

B. Green and Co. has recruited a “substantial” number of permanent and temporary workers for its GV to Go pick-up service. Workers wearing gloves now fill orders only in the early morning or late evening to limit the number of people in the aisles, and the stores take payment only electronically. The stores also offer delivery through online service Door Dash.

Supply chains have yet to return to normal, and some items continue to be out of stock, Rodgers added.

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The longer wait times haven’t deterred customers.

At Graul’s Market, a family-owned chain of six markets in Baltimore, Annapolis and the Eastern Shore, Instacart “shoppers are in the store continuously,” said Kate Poffenberger, one of the owners. “A lot more people are trying delivery because they don’t want to come out of their house.”

Once Maryland’s stay-at-home order took effect, Baltimore resident Pat Smith stopped shopping near his home at MOM’s Organic Market in Hampden. He and his wife signed up for Instacart. His first online grocery experience, from Sprouts Farmers Market in Towson, worked smoothly.

“And then things got wacky,” Smith said.

While trying to figure out dates and times available for delivery, he inadvertently signed up twice for the same order from Wegmans totaling roughly $100.

He got a notice around 10 p.m. one evening that the delivery would arrive in a half hour. Then he was notified of another delivery to arrive about 11 p.m. It was too late to cancel. Fortunately, Instacart refunded an order and let them keep the groceries.

“During normal times, we’re at MOMs about every other day,” he said. “But unless they tighten up the safety, we’re not going back till this thing is over.”

Jeremy Diamond of Baltimore-based food retailing consultant Diamond Marketing Group believes people won’t return to the stores in the same numbers as before the virus struck. Though online food sales had been growing rapidly before COVID-19, they still represented a small share, just over 3 percent, of the $700 billion grocery industry, some estimates show. In just the past few weeks, however, Instacart has seen a 300% spike in year-over-year order volume. And it has added 150,000 active shoppers to the 200,000 it had just two weeks ago.

“After this coronavirus has passed, curbside pickup and delivery is going to be the new norm,” Diamond said. “People are going to expect it.”

Most retailers were unprepared for the volume, Diamond said, either with too few trucks in their fleets or too few workers, exacerbated by employees out on sick leave. So time slots filled up fast.

“And they’re still trying to play catch-up,” he said.

For some small businesses, the expansion of home delivery has not only compensated for lost sales; it has opened up new markets that may outlive the coronavirus.

Detric McCoy, left, who supervises the new home delivery operation for Taharka Brothers, makes a delivery of eight pints of ice cream to Dan Chapman of Guilford. Taharka Brothers began offering home delivery of their ice cream during the coronavirus pandemic. The delivery service has been very popular, with more than 1,800 orders to date.
Detric McCoy, left, who supervises the new home delivery operation for Taharka Brothers, makes a delivery of eight pints of ice cream to Dan Chapman of Guilford. Taharka Brothers began offering home delivery of their ice cream during the coronavirus pandemic. The delivery service has been very popular, with more than 1,800 orders to date. (Amy Davis)

Prior to the pandemic, as much as 75% of Taharka Brothers’ ice cream business was to restaurants, bars and scoop shops. Now that business has been largely replaced by home deliveries.

“We are in full-on delivery mode,” said Stephen Butz, CEO of the company based on Clipper Mill Road in Baltimore.

Since first offering home delivery a month ago, Taharka Brothers has had thousands of orders, including to Ravens kicker Justin Tucker, who posted about it on Instagram, Butz said.

With a minimum of eight pints per order, delivery within the city is typically free, with a fee for suburbs like Cockeysville. The company also offers “flash sales” in which they deliver to counties farther away, like Anne Arundel and Howard. A freezer truck keeps ice cream frozen on longer-haul deliveries.

A software system Butz built with a consulting firm helps organize and track orders placed in the Baltimore area and ensure that each is filled within 48 hours.

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At times, demand has overwhelmed supply at the factory, which is operating with a reduced staff to help comply with social-distancing guidelines. Taharka Brothers temporarily employed “surge pricing” — raising the price per case of 8 pints from $56 to $64 — to reduce demand.

The pandemic has produced temporary conditions that Butz said are particularly conducive to home delivery: There’s little traffic on roadways and people are stuck at home.

“These are things that aren’t going to exist when things get back to normal,” he said. Still, even after the virus passes, he said, “I think we’re in this to stay.”

Some businesses are relying on technology more than ever to connect with consumers.

A new app called “biermi” allows customers stuck at home to order beer from local breweries in various states. Co-created by Brendan O’Leary of Rockville’s True Respite Brewing Company, biermi features 21 breweries in Maryland, including Oliver Brewing Co. and Union Craft Brewing in Baltimore.

After restaurants closed, and Oliver Brewing’s sales to area restaurants and in their taproom evaporated, owners wondered how to stay afloat. The app was “the big game changer,” said operations manager Kevin Pirecki.

Through biermi, customers in certain ZIP codes can place orders for its ales. Employees drop off orders near where they live on their way home each day. “So we’re not just having people drive all over the place,” Pirecki said.

The increase in home delivery has helped prevent the brewery from having to lay off workers during the pandemic.

“Every little bit helps,” Pirecki said.

It’s not clear whether such delivery of alcohol — permitted under Gov. Larry Hogan’s order closing restaurants and bars — will be allowed to continue after the emergency order is lifted.

Delivery isn’t a panacea. Baltimore Spirits Co. has struggled to make up for lost sales to bars and restaurants even with the expanded option of home delivery.

“It certainly does not offset the effect of the pandemic,” said Max Lents, the Medfield distillery’s co-founder and CEO.

Sasha Gallant and her husband, Dan Chapman, are among area residents shut in at home and trying to support neighborhood businesses. Each time they’ve ordered prepared food, they’ve picked a business in a different city neighborhood, said Gallant, who is working her job in international development from home while Chapman sees physical therapy patients by teleconference.

“This is a time when we’re figuring out how to support local businesses that are trying to stay afloat through all this madness,” Gallant said.

She ordered ice cream from Taharka to celebrate her husband’s birthday during the quarantine. Then last week, the couple put in for another eight pints, flavors such as key lime pie and coffee Oreo.

“It’s amazing how long it does not last when you’re home all day with eight pints of ice cream,” Gallant said.

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