Vaughn Murphy prepares to load groceries into a customer's trunk //photo credit: Cheryl Young/Salty


COVID-19 spurs a shift in how we buy our food

Decades ago, before large national grocery store chains became commonplace in Prince Edward Island, Islanders got their groceries at the small ‘Mom and Pop’ general stores in their town (or village) or with door-to-door delivery services. Though I don’t consider myself ‘old’, I do recall my mother placing our milk sign in the window so that our milkman would leave our standing order for us every few days.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, as shoppers try to maintain safe physical distancing and avoid confined spaces with masses of people, there’s been a revival of sorts for personalized shopping and grocery deliveries and pickup. Both large and small retailers are offering their customers choices for curbside pickups or home deliveries.

Jordan MacPhee, co-owner of Maple Bloom Farm, is a vendor at the Charlottetown Farmers’ Market. When it became apparent in March that COVID-19 restrictions would mean the market’s closure, he began to coordinate an online farmers’ market. The first week saw an immense interest but the Charlottetown Farmers’ Market cooperative decided that it was best to regroup and come up with a different solution under their banner, so MacPhee carried on himself.

He had been working on an online solution for CSA farmers for over a year now, called Waggon,  which was due to launch next month. As the Waggon solution is still in its beta stage, MacPhee decided to use a different online store for now, and Eat Local PEI was launched.

After nearly two months there has been a steady increase in customers ordering their local produce, food products, and meats through this online venue. Customers place their order by Wednesday of each week and MacPhee and his team coordinate for pickups on Saturday afternoons. Currently they are renting a refrigerated truck and distributing groceries in Charlottetown at the old Sears parking lot (now home to Leon’s Furniture); delivery to customers within Charlottetown, Cornwall, and Stratford is also available.

“Our first week we had 150 orders. Last week we had 200,” MacPhee said. “And that means we’re packing about 40 orders per hour to get ready for deliveries to go out.”

Vaughn Murphy and Jordan MacPhee greet customers waiting to get their groceries //photo credit: Cheryl Young/Salty

MacPhee is excited about how quickly customers have taken to this new way of shopping.

“COVID-19 has transformed the food system in a month in a way that we would expect it to take 10 years,” he explained. “So, there’s been like a one-month revolution in local food, that would normally have taken over a decade to accomplish.”

MacPhee hopes to transition the current online store to his custom-made solution Waggon by mid-summer. This will mean a fully Island solution is being used.

Many farmers and local food producers have found ways to continue selling their products. As McPhee noted, online stores are being set up to provide continued service to customers. On May 2, the Charlottetown Farmers’ Market re-entered the online world with their solution. Demand was high as customers lined up in their cars to pick up their grocery orders.

Along with produce and food products, our local beverage companies have modified their sales processes. When it became apparent that be COVID-19 crisis would shut down bars and restaurants local craft brewers and cider makers stepped into action. They lobbied the PEILCC to allow for home delivery of their products and after some consideration, it was approved.

“It’s been a lifeline,” Robert Van Waarden said. The owner and operator of Red Island Cider is thankful that home delivery of alcohol has been permitted during COVID-19. As a new company, Red Island Cider celebrates its first anniversary this month. Being able to offer delivery of cider across PEI has meant the business has weathered this unprecedented storm. Van Waarden explained that with local bars closed, the demand for their cider was diminished, but home delivery (and now curbside pickup) have allowed him to keep production going.

Other breweries like Lone Oak Brewing in Borden-Carleton, Copper Bottom Brewing and Bogside Brewing in Montague, along with Upstreet and PEI Brewing Company in Charlottetown also began home deliveries.

In the west end of the Island, Moth Lane Brewing can be found in the parking lot of the Summerside Farmers’ Market each Saturday, selling their brews out of the back of their truck. Owner Eric Wagner joked on Moth Lane’s Facebook page that it feels slightly odd.

“I felt a little awkward standing out in full view selling beer to people on the street. It took me a little while to figure it out,” Wagner wrote. “Somewhere deep in my genes my grandfathers were telling me that that kinda thing would have never happened in their time because any time they had to do a transaction they had to do it somewhere out of the prying eyes of the revenue men.”

All joking aside, the resurgence of buying local and supporting Prince Edward Island is welcomed. The uncertainty of the COVID-19 crisis has meant adaptation across the board, but for businesses that rely on consumers to purchase their food products, it has been vital to switch gears.

As soon as local officials started to talk about social distancing and contact-less business options, The Handpie Company’s owner Sarah Bennetto O’Brien realized she’d need to think about adapting her business model. Her retail space in Albany is small so social distancing her customers was not possible. Instead Bennetto O’Brien turned to an online ordering system and curbside pick up. Customers order their frozen handpies, and they are placed into their car trunks in the business’ parking lot. It allows for contact-less sales.

Sarah Bennetto O’Brien now offers contactless sales and pick ups at The Handpie Company in Albany //submitted photo

Bennetto O’Brien said that business has been steady. “Customers really appreciate having these safe contact-less options for comfort food in this time of uncertainty and working from home. We aim to be a convenient freezer-stash local food meal option and this is where we shine!”

She also joked that one of the perks of the new sales system is “getting to meet everyone’s dogs in their backseats as I load up their trunks.”

Islanders are taking to the convenience of home delivery and curbside pickups. MacPhee explains why he thinks it is working so well.

“We [producers] are meeting in the middle versus saying okay, ‘we want you to eat local’, but now we’re going to bend over backwards to make it as convenient as possible for you [as the customer].”

As Prince Edward Island begins to move through the various phases of reopening after COVID-19, businesses will continue to adapt and change. The options now available to consumers for home delivery, easy pickup, and online ordering will no doubt continue to have an impact on future food shopping. Who knows, perhaps door-to-door milk delivery will return as well. I’ll happily put my sign in the window!

About Cheryl Young

A “Jill of all trades” describes Cheryl to a T. From operating her own handyperson company, to selling luxury cars, to working as a film and TV crew member, her resume is diverse. But her dream as a kid was to be a journalist and she started down that path many years ago at CBC Charlottetown. Returning to her journalism roots, she’s excited to be editing Salty’s content and occasionally writing herself.

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