For several weeks, the GWBJ has been conducting a weekly Q & A with local restaurant owners, regarding the impact of COVID-19. This week we spoke with Max Sussman, who owns and operates The Veggie Wagon with his wife, April.
As the owner of a local business that involves both retail food sales and prepared foods, how difficult has it been adapt to the foodservice regulations imposed by Gov. Roy Cooper?
"We have had to make a few changes at our production facility, but as the food we prepare is already prepacked and labeled, the regulations that have been imposed have been something that we added into our existing procedures. We have a state inspector on site every day so it has been very nice to have a state employee at our facility to keep us up to date on any changes with regulations and also have another set of eyes that may look at things from a different view.
"Retail has been interesting for sure as our stores are fairly small. We have an amazing operations staff and we have been able to implement necessary changes at our retail store seamlessly. Once the state published exactly what they wanted to see at essential stores that were still open with percentage of customers allowed in and other mandatory rules we just had to formulate a plan and execute it; having that direction was really nice as it removed all the guessing out of what we needed to do."
What kinds of protective measures are in place to protect your staff and customers?
"About five weeks ago when we saw that this was a very serious matter, we locked down our production facility to employees only and canceled all meetings we had on the books. We are very fortunate that we had very robust written sanitation procedures and employee health procedures that are required for a facility like ours in place already, so we mainly had to just add to and expand our existing plan.
"Once the executive order for the retail stores came from the governor, we were able to put everything in place fairly quickly, it was really nice to have that direction of mandatory items. We decided about the same time we locked down the production facility to close the public restrooms at the stores, discontinued any sampling, canceled all of our events and designed rigorous cleaning schedules.
"We shortened our hours at both stores to allow for a single shift each day instead of having our normal two shifts a day. This all came along so fast that at the beginning we were talking to other business owners and our retail staff each day to make sure that we had our bases covered.
"Our staff has been amazing during all of this. One of our retail staff members made masks for all of our employees and it has been a great sense of togetherness and teamwork; we have always know we have an amazing staff, but the way everyone has supported each other has been moving."
Has the flow of customers slowed since stay-at-home orders have been in place?
"We are very fortunate that we have amazing local support. We have seen it comes in waves and it is very weather dependent. If it is raining people tend to cook what they have in the house already but on sunny days it seems people want to get out a little and pick up something for dinner."
Have you seen a spike in the sale of prepared meals?
"It has been very interesting to see the changes in customer purchases. At first we could not make enough meals that were freezer ready, then we had a ground beef rush, and now it has normalized a bit. We were meeting every morning and looking at if we needed to pivot our product selection to fill in where items were not available at larger grocery stores.
"It has been peaks and valleys for sure, but Lauren who runs our production facility has done an incredible job forecasting production while April and I were able to focus on changes we needed to make to keep customers and staff safe."
How has the current situation effected your partnership with area farmers and other vendors?
"It has been interesting for sure. Many of our farmers are older and are staying at home and not really picking and growing much. We have a few famers that deliver to us and have been ordering as much as possible from them on a weekly basis.
"We also have retail partners in Raleigh that we deliver to, but to keep our staff safe, we have stopped that route for now. Many of our wholesale customers have closed but we are still selling a large amount of ground beef to places like Slainte, Tarantellis, Freddie’s and Sundays Café in Wrightsville Beach has continued to order breakfast burritos.
"We have been in contact with our accounts that have been forced to close and we are excited to help them get back to business when the time comes."
Several weeks ago you launched your Casseroles for a Cause campaign, with the goal of providing casseroles to those in need. How has the response been so far?
"Amazing. It has been the best feeling in the world during this whole thing. The program has grounded us and gave us a bigger cause to focus on. It is such a great feeling to be able to deliver meals to the help center and they have been going through everything we bring them. They have been freezing them which removes the shelf life so they can give a few to each family in need.
"The online ordering platform has given the at-risk community a way to help people where they live and not expose themselves to having to go out. When we launched this program, we had so many orders with people asking to donate their total order we had to add that option at checkout. People out of the area are ordering meals for their relatives that live in town to pick up and ordering to help the community they visit each summer for vacation.
"It has been very cool to be a part of a program that has touched so many people in a positive way. We are talking about keeping it year-round."
As a leader in the business community, do you have any advice for other business owners or the community in general?
"There is a sign up at Pleasure Island Rentals that says, 'This, too, shall pass.' We pass that sign every day on the way to work and I think that has really helped us stay focused. Being in a community where we get hurricanes that have destroyed local businesses before, that mantra is something we have said countless times over the life of our business and nothing could be truer.
"This, too, shall pass; it will be different once it does and we will have to find the new normal, but seeing that sign every day reminds me to stay focused and we will come out stronger on the other side."
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