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Connecticut supermarkets cope with pandemic: Smaller Thanksgiving turkeys, more grab-and-go meals

A staffer stocks the grab-and-go section Friday at the newly remodeled Stop & Shop in Granby.
A staffer stocks the grab-and-go section Friday at the newly remodeled Stop & Shop in Granby. (Don Stacom)

As the pandemic grinds into its eighth month, central Connecticut supermarkets are doing better business than ever in grab-and-go meals.

They’re also stocking smaller turkeys for Thanksgiving and smaller cakes for parties, strategizing on how to get through any supply shortages this winter, and stressing flexibility in work schedules to accommodate their workforces.

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“We’re changing things as we go, doing what we need to do to survive,” said John Salerno, owner of Tops Marketplace in Southington.

“When it began there was so much we didn’t know. Now we’re better prepared,” said Angel Cruz, manager of the Granby Stop & Shop. “Still, we’re staying flexible. You need to be able to change plans as things change.”

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Salerno and Cruz have unique insights into the way supermarkets are changing to meet the surprise demands of the COVID-19 era.

Salerno’s independent store, affiliated with IGA, opened the same month that coronavirus restrictions hit Connecticut. And Cruz’s Stop & Shop on Friday celebrated the completion of a three-month remodeling that addresses some of the newest market trends in the business.

Among the biggest changes they’ve seen in 2020 is a powerful consumer shift to fresh, pre-packaged lunches and dinners. The so-called grab-and-go items were already getting a bigger share of sales before the pressures of the coronavirus struck, and now now they’re doing even better.

“The grab-and-go options are what people want — they don’t want to think about meal preparation,” Maura O’Brien, community relations manager for the Stop & Shop chain, said Friday at the Granby store.

“For the mom who is trying to work at home and has her kids learning from home, she just doesn’t have the bandwidth to figure out what to make for lunch,” O’Brien said.

The remodeling carved out larger spaces for everything from cold sandwiches to a new station for freshly made flatbread pizzas and another for sushi. Shoppers are looking to branch out after months of “meal fatigue” — or weariness with the same rotation of home-cooked meals, said Matt Phillips, Stop & Shop’s corporate manager for prepared foods.

Salerno’s customers are no different: The kitchen at his store produces meals each day, and they’re sold out by the evening.

“I can’t keep them stocked. Anything with chicken — chicken parmigiana, lemon chicken, stuffed chicken breasts prepared with vegetables and potatoes — it all flies off the shelf,” Salerno said.

“Crockpot meals in a bag have been big — stews, some stroganoff. We make our own pot pies, and they’ve been popular,” he said.

Self-serve buffets can’t be done currently, but many supermarkets simply divide items into individual-serving containers and put them out on heat trays for customers to get.

Salerno, however, has stuck with fresh-made meals sold cold with simple warming directions. When restrictions are lifted, his store is ready to go back to the original plan of selling both hot and cold meals — the reason he invested in display equipment with a heating section on one side and refrigeration on the other.

“Right now it’s a $30,000 bread rack,” Salerno said.

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Because of restrictions on gatherings, shoppers are buying fewer items in jumbo party sizes. All summer, sales of full-size sheet cakes were slow, Cruz said. Instead, people wanted half- or quarter-sheets.

For Thanksgiving, that means meat departments are trying to stock more small or medium turkeys.

“I’d normally be getting 18- to 20-pound turkeys, now it’s 13- to 15-pound,” Cruz said.

“Not that many people are having 10 to 20 people meals,” O’Brien said.

Inventory managers at all supermarket chains have been working this summer to prevent the kind of product shortages that left shelves bare last spring.

A few items may briefly run out in different markets, O’Brien said, but the situation is nothing like it was. Cruz cited household cleaners — especially disinfectant sprays and wipes — as the most persistent shortages.

Several supermarket chains in Pennsylvania reinstituted buying limits for their most shortage-prone items, but that hasn’t reached Connecticut.

“There’s talk of new shortages. I see some all the time — paper products, every once in a while tomatoes or canned products,” Salerno said. “It’s not as bad as it was in the middle of the summer.”

Like virtually every other industry in the country, supermarkets are learning to adapt, Cruz said. Hiring and scheduling staff follows a different pattern than it did in the past.

“It used to be that with kids in school, mothers would work here during the day. Now a lot of them are home with their children during the day, so they’re working here at night,” he said. “It’s the other way with college students. When they were in classes during the day, they’d work at night. Now they’re studying at home, and they want to work during the day.”

Don Stacom can be reached at dstacom@courant.com.

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