NoDa Company Store adapts to strange unknown

To say it’s been an unusual month would be an understatement. This type of pause in our world, and the impact it’s had on our lives, is like nothing any of us have experienced before. With this new territory have come some unexpected evolutions in each of our lives. The direct impact of course varies from person to person, but the common thread is none of us could have predicted or planned for it. We are in a strange unknown together.

This certainly isn’t the year we’d been preparing for at NoDa Company Store. In January, we set out to create a multitude of events for our store’s spring season. Being a patio bar, this time of year is what we’re built for – it’s what we love and it’s the most beautiful time to be in the Carolinas. We planned our second annual NoDa Prom, a Strawberry Everything weekend for when local strawberries hit the market, an Otter Fest, a NoK 0.0k race event, and music on the back patio stage. We were ecstatic about the return of Sunday Funday Free Lunches, where we see a lot of our friends and neighbors.

The first weekend in March was our big anniversary weekend, with three days of events culminating in the first Sunday Funday back. It was also the last weekend we’ve really been open as the Company Store as we’ve known it for four years. That weekend was a blast – the weather was perfect, and everyone was out and in the great collective mood that comes with the crisp early days of spring.

But the following week, stories about the spread of COVID-19 in the U.S. started dominating the headlines. Then the stock market tanked – and tanked again, then again. We began to realize things were really, really wrong.

As many state and local governments began issuing stay-at-home orders, it became clear that it was only a matter of time before it reached Charlotte. When the first orders came out in North Carolina, we expected it, but then had to begin the process of figuring out what to do.

As a place built for social gathering, the change to social distancing would be complete for us – no middle ground. We watched most neighborhood restaurants move toward take-out and delivery. Since we don’t produce food, delivery could have been an option but not one that would really fill any need – just drinks and snacks.

Then, two things converged on the same day. First, we went to the grocery store and it was packed. Many folks inside seemed oblivious to the calls for social distancing. Then, a friend and neighbor commented that we should carry some basic groceries at the store so neighbors could walk and get them, avoiding the larger, more crowded grocers.

We realized then the need we could fill, and decided to jump in. We already had accounts with distributors, and still had a few farmer contacts from back in the days when we started the NoDa Farmers Market. We also, by weird chance, had converted our detached garage over to a kitchen to prep for Sunday lunches, so we have a large-capacity commercial fridge for storage.

So, we opened +GROCERY as a small grocer for our neighbors. We had sanitizer at the door, sanitized shopping baskets between customers, and put a limit on how many people could come in. We removed chairs and barstools, pushed the tables to the walls, and built additional shelving. We set up displays for produce, dry goods, additional beverages, and breads. We rearranged our fridges, which once held mostly beer and wine, making space for all sorts of dairy, eggs, cheese, more produce, and meats.

Our first three days were really crazy. We were up at the crack of dawn, getting to the supply warehouses right when they opened. We’d pull in, don our masks and gloves, and make our way in. We bought tons of stuff, discussing at length what we thought people might want or need, what we had room for in our limited space, and what needed to be kept in cold storage and dry storage. We hauled it back to the store, priced it, and put it on the shelves, scrambling to get it all in place before we opened to the public. The response was tremendous, so we knew we were doing the right thing.

After those three days, and with more news of the virus spreading, we realized there was still a bit too much interaction with folks coming inside to shop. Officials and medical experts were pushing for as little interaction as possible, so we decided in the best interest of everyone to be curbside or delivery only. That meant shoppers needed to be able to browse online so, in another overnight change, we produced an online store. We closed for a day, rearranged the store again (this time to more of a storage and pantry), and set up the new “store” online. We reopened on a Saturday, with no time to troubleshoot the new operating system, and the orders poured in. It was a learn-as-you-go moment, so we put our heads down and figured it out as we went.

Since then we’ve developed a new normal (it’s been two weeks, I think – no three, or maybe four, but who’s counting?), and learned a lot.

We’ve learned more about grocery stores in the past month than we’ve ever truly cared to know. We’ve learned how to not just pick produce, but produce with good shelf life left on it. We know what a lot of our neighbors eat these days, and I have to admit I love reading over the lists. Uh-huh, y’all makin’ tacos tonight, I see you. And damn, y’all eat a lot of eggs and a bunch of berries and bananas too.

We’ve learned to substitute, as we carry the basics but might not have some less common things. We hate throwing away food so we bring home the ugly stuff – the veggies nearing the end of their shelf life, or the bruised or cut ones – and figure out what we’ll be cooking for dinner. This was something fun for us, so we started doing social media cooking contests, presenting three competitors every other day or so with a surprise basket of ingredients solely from the store. They cook and present in the evening, and fans and friends vote.

We’ve done what we could to remain open and create a new normal for ourselves. Like most everyone, I’d presume, we’ve tried to keep a smile and remain happy. In these strange times, we’ve worked to have fun in the process, wherever that’s possible. Normal one month ago was a beer garden, wine bar, and a patio built for socializing with neighbors. Normal now is online shopping, curbside pickup or delivery, lots of air hugs from across the fence, and a better understanding of what the essentials are.

This is our new normal, at least for the time being, so we’re going to continue doing what we love doing for as long as we’re allowed to do it – and that’s to help keep NoDa’s incomparable spirit and close-knit community together, at a safe distance.