A year has passed since Mayor London Breed issued one of the nation’s earliest shelter-in-place orders. Much has changed since then. According to the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce, less than half the City’s small businesses are open. Sheltering-in-place, with roughly 31,000 people unemployed, have drastically cut demand for such services as dining out and dentistry.
There’s one sector, however, for which the pandemic’s challenge hasn’t been too few customers, but too many. “We got flooded with people”, recalled Kayren Hudiburgh, co-owner and co-founder of The Good Life Grocery, which opened in Potrero Hill in 1974 and Bernal Heights in 1991.
“It was right before Saint Patrick’s Day and the word was coming out that there was going to be a lockdown. We were always told that we were going to be an essential service and so we’d stay open. Before we knew it, there were lines. People were panic buying. It was kind of shocking, actually. I bagged for five hours one day, just trying to keep up.”
Good Life’s Hill store greets visitors with a hand painted awning and window signs announcing seasonal specials. Inside, brightly lit aisles beckon customers with impossibly vertical piles of fruits and vegetables, created by staffers like Jose, who has worked at Good Life for more than a decade. Despite the plastic barriers and sanitation stations, the public health crisis has had little impact on the appearance of the neighborhood standby, a respite of normalcy from the relentless changes going on outside.
The Good Life team worked hard to keep the store running. Hudiburgh said it wasn’t certain that the business would be able to accommodate the increased demands the pandemic placed on its resources and staff. Things have calmed down since San Francisco relaxed its public health restrictions, but a year of purples, reds, and orange has taught Hudiburgh and her team not to take anything for granted.
Before the March 16 shelter-in-place order was issued, Good Life hadn’t been notified of any physical distancing requirements or restrictions on the number of customers that could be in the store. Both its locations were swarmed in the days leading up to the lockdown, with different municipal instruction issues daily thereafter.
“We didn’t even know exactly what was going to happen,” Hudiburgh said. “There wasn’t any advanced notice to small businesses, except you have to close at eight o’clock.”
Good Life’s General Manager, Samantha Zuvella, remembered her and her co-workers’ frantic efforts to deal with the abrupt jump in business.
“We didn’t have enough time to tell our suppliers, we’re going to be swamped and we need to increase our orders,” she said. “Over the weekend we got wiped out. Our shelves were empty. Our employees were exhausted.”
Warehouses across the San Francisco Bay Area were wiped out. The World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a global pandemic on March 11th; by the middle of the month national supply chains for food and other consumables were severely strained.
“There was the toilet paper fiasco, amongst other things” Zuvella laughed. “We couldn’t get it because our suppliers couldn’t get it, either.”
“Our suppliers were going through the same thing,” Hudiburgh recalled. “We would order cases and cases of stuff, and either they wouldn’t show up, or they would show up with nothing. And we wouldn’t know that till the truck arrived.”
Zuvella added, “just as we got hit with tripling and quadrupling our orders, every grocery store was doing that to the suppliers. So, they were trying to keep up with the orders, also, and keep their employees safe. Some of them got shutdown. Some of them, we couldn’t get supplies from for two weeks.”
As long-time merchandise sources ran out, Good Life’s staff scrambled to find replacements. Nimbler than some of its larger competitors, the store was often able to hunt down suppliers to piece together orders.
“But we understand that these guys always have to honor pre-existing customers, first,” said Zuvella.
It’s been a tricky balance between knowing when to wait and when to search elsewhere. Good Life was able to lean on connections built over decades.
“It’s all about relationships and having that strong network,” Zuvella said. “People know us. They know we’re going to pay them.”
While certain products flew off the shelves, not to be restocked for days or weeks, the store managed to stay as on top of demand as well as any other grocer.
“If we didn’t have it,” Hudiburgh said, “Whole Foods didn’t, either.”
“We actually did pretty well,” recalled Jackie Trujillo, Assistant Manager. “We stockpiled our toilet paper for a while, so we got through that first crazy month and a half when other places were out.”
Good Life attracted new customers who reported that the store was one of the few that still offered toilet paper. The demand surge was challenging for a small employer of 70, split between two locations. Even before the San Francisco Department of Public Health (DPH) issued restrictions on customer occupancy, Hudiburgh reported that Good Life implemented its own quotas, “just so we could move around. It was crazy.”
Restrictions on operating hours and the demands of social distancing meant long lines for customers and no down time for employees.
“I swear, we had the best staff. They were just an incredible staff to get through this,” Hudiburgh said.
Employees were fearful of COVID-19’s unknown dangers, but showed up to work, accepted overtime and skipped breaks. Good Life ultimately secured a Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loan from Bank of America and hired more people, but in the early days staff shortfalls were frequently met by family members volunteering to help out.
“We had wives and sons-in-law and kids coming up to help bag,” Hudiburgh recounted.
Customers offered to help so that fatigued employees could take a break. For friends and family of staff who lost their jobs in the first round of pandemic layoffs, Good Life was able to offer temporary part time work.
“We lost a couple people,” Hudiburgh said, referring to employees who decided to go on unemployment rather than risk their or loved ones’ health. Most stayed.
“Everybody was scared, nervous and tired, but we all had a job to do. It was to feed the neighborhood. It was really great: the whole circle—with the staff and the community helping—just the spirit of cooperation in Potrero Hill was amazing. And we got so much thank you’s back from the community.”
Zak, who was hired as a floor person after losing his long-time bartending job last spring, was grateful not just to be employed, but to have this job.
“We were lucky to get some pretty top-notch applicants,” Hudiburgh said, “and I think a few folks who would never have seen grocery work as a career path have now found a home here.”
“We were all scared, but we were just trying to get through it together,” Zuvella said.
When asked if she was ever afraid to go to work, store supervisor, Jocelyn Navarrete, answered, “not at all. I feel like they handled it very well.”
Good Life rewarded its employees for the extra work—and stress—of feeding the neighborhood in the midst of a historic crisis. In addition to the PPP loan, secured by co-owner Lester Zeidman, which they anticipate will be forgiven, Good Life’s revenue rose, rare for a mortar and brick store.
“We’re not rolling in it or anything,” Hudiburgh hastened to add, “but we’re doing ok.”
The extra income was invested in safety upgrades to both stores’ interiors under DPH supervision, protective equipment, sanitation supplies, increased overtime, new hires, and weekly employee bonuses. No one would say how much the pay was, but staff with whom the View spoke indicated that they felt valued and recognized for their extra work.
The bonuses are in keeping with Good Life’s roots as an employee-owned business. Prior to the pandemic, the store switched to a closed ownership, with Hudiburgh and other co-owners buying up employee stock and preparing to implement a profit-sharing practice that, as Hudiburgh described, “is simpler, without so many levels.” Those plans had to be shelved so management could focus on the store’s COVID response, but a form of profit sharing is in place.
Hudiburgh said the community didn’t complained about empty shelves or long lines, instead expressing gratitude and support. Bernal Heights residents started a Gofundme page to raise money for staff members there. Hill customers installed a large banner in the window for people to sign as they came and went with their groceries.
“It was really cool to see the little ones out there drawing on it,” Hudiburgh said.
“We had customers donating masks,” Trujillo recalled. “We had nurses that would bring us little, mini stockpiles. We had a customer buy us lunch one day. For everyone who was here, she brought sandwiches so we all could eat.”
Simon Gompers has shopped at Good Life for almost 20 years. Since the start of the pandemic he’s almost exclusively bought groceries there.
“I gave up on Whole Foods or Safeway long ago,” he said. “Shop local. Keep money in the community as best you can.” He’s found Good Life’s response to the COVID crisis “phenomenal. Everybody has really stepped up to support the community. It’s the reason that all of us have been able to subsist and get by. I have just an attitude of gratitude, and grateful that everybody is here.”
Good Life has had to adjust every aspect of its business, including changing opening hours to allow for extra cleaning time in the mornings and adapting to unpredictable delivery schedules. Zuvella’s job now includes near-daily communication with DPH. Staff attend more meetings, to keep everyone informed; vaccination appointments have been made.
“DPH has been wonderful,” Zuvella said.
For many employees the pandemic has been exhausting, stressful, and an opportunity. Navarrete normally works as store supervisor for the Bernal Heights location but was “just helping out” at Potrero Hill when the View stopped by. Navarrete has worked at Good Life for four and a half years and is training for accounts payable. The public health emergency offered a crash course in business crisis management.
“It was pretty crazy. COVID hit us out of nowhere,” she said. “It was all one day to another that we had to handle things. I think the store did really well. We were all sane about it, even with all the craziness going on.”
In the first weeks of the pandemic Navarrete stepped in as a cashier. She remembered entire shifts spent on her feet, ringing up customers non-stop.
“I took my half hour [break],” she said, “but even then, we had to keep going, keep going. It was non-stop work.” In an eight hour shift she might ring up 200 customers. “I’ve learned that I can really think on my feet.”
Business has slowed since those early, crazy, days with a steep decline following the re-opening of indoor and outdoor dining.
“We’re grateful to have the restaurants back, of course,” says Hudiburgh. “We really needed them.”
With most staff vaccinated, Good Life is looking forward to the future, but Hudiburgh doesn’t anticipate changing pandemic-adopted practices anytime soon.
“Better safe than sorry,” she said.