When the coronavirus pandemic hit Colorado, the criticality of grocery stores was felt immediately. While some people had the luxury of working from home to minimize risk, grocery store employees did not. Pete Marczyk of Marczyk Fine Foods explains COVID-19’s impact on his local grocery store, its grocery store employees, and the effort it takes to keep Coloradans fed during a pandemic.

This is our Heroes of COVID-19 series, highlighting local essential workers and community members making a difference during the coronavirus pandemic. 

Q&A With Pete Marczyk of Marczyk Fine Foods

Why did you start your business and what was the process like?

I grew up in New England with incredibly fresh and high-quality food. When I moved here in the early nineties, there just wasn’t much available in terms of differentiated supply chain. There were a few local markets and they used most of the same distributors. That was kind of the thing of the time, right? I mean, the word “foodies” was just being invented. Sustainability was something that hippies did. It was just a different world 20 years ago. 

I’ve always had a passion for food and sourcing. Who grew it, and how was it raised? What am I really supporting here with my dollar? We’ve always said the most powerful vote that one has is with one’s wallet. Today, we are seeing as a culture the high cost of cheap food. 

My wife, Barbara Macfarlane, and I were pretty confident that we could create a business model that would sustain our lives and pay a fair income and maybe, maybe even make a little money along the way. You know, my wife is incredibly supportive and she was behind me 100 percent, and we just threw in together. 

How has Marczyk’s been impacted by COVID-19? 

There’ve been dramatic impacts. It’s been really stressful. Especially on the team. To be clear, they’re the heroes in this thing. On March 15th, we implemented a triage call with senior management. We were very early to adopt social distancing and metering. By the 18th or 19th of March we were where businesses are today, I mean we really went into hyperdrive.

We take our position as a neighborhood market very, very seriously. Keeping our neighbors fed was very important to the whole team.

We moved as much as we could out of that mid-day period of time where we had customers and staff interacting at less than ideal social distance. We did that through our new shifting. Now we have an early shift that does mainly market and food preparation. We have a retail shift, which we changed to 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Then we have a late shift. The late shift picks orders for our Shop, Stop, and Roll Service and stocks the store. We would normally have that stocking occur during the day.

I think there’s been a huge impact with just fear. Our staff, you know, they’re out there in it, they’re in the soup every day. We take the steps to keep them safe and healthy, but there’s still more risks than staying at home for sure. We recognize that. Our whole mantra has been to keep it as normal as possible and just try to take as much stress out of the system as we can because there’s so much stress out there for everyone.

What is your day to day experience? Are you going into the store or are you doing more behind the scenes?

For the first six weeks of this, we were pretty much all hands on deck. I mean, in the store, cashiering, stocking, you know, carrying whatever. It was crazy. We were seeing really different behavior from our customers in terms of what they were buying and how much of it they were buying. We are a family business. Everybody was working, my wife was working in the stores and you know, we’ve all done every job. 

The big thing there was I didn’t want my team to be out there while I sat at home telling them what to do. 

But, you know, thankfully I don’t have to work in the same way now. We do have a legitimate leadership team that for the most part doesn’t have to work in shift. 

During those first six weeks, what did the environment feel like? Did any grocery store employees express that they were uncomfortable working?

Yeah. We had some who lived with older relatives. They were concerned, and we took a very gentle approach. We said, “Look, if you don’t want to come into work, this is 100 percent optional. You’ve got sick time, you’ve got PTO, we’re waiving all of our normal requirements of notice. Just stay home.” We didn’t want anybody coming in here against their will. 

We’ve taken a lot of heat out of the schedule by cutting those four hours. For the most part, I’ve been able to have a really sane schedule for everyone with quality days off. Many of our people have gone to a 4/10 sort of a schedule. So they get three days off. It’s not everybody and it’s still in progress, this is a highly dynamic situation still. But generally speaking, that’s one of the outcomes that I’m really very excited about. And maybe something the virus is here to teach us.

So many people in our business, food service, restaurants, retail, have just worked ourselves to a place where it’s just too much. It’s not sustainable.

You know the old story about the frog and the pot? If you put a frog in boiling water, it’ll hop right out. You put a frog in tepid water and turn on the heat and the frog will boil. I think as a culture we are the boiled frog. We just have to give ourselves a little more room to breathe and live and you know, I think we can come out of this thing sustainably and profitably, but it’s gonna mean changes. 

Can you tell me a bit about your grocery store employees? 

We employ, I think it’s 84 souls. Generally speaking, it’s a younger demographic. It’s a hard place to work. I know full well that I’m not an easy guy to work for. We work hard, we want our people to work hard, and we want to deliver a great product to our customers. 

But the crew has been just, I mean, un-f*cking-believable. Unreal. I’m going to get emotional about this. I can’t tell you how awesome they have been. They’ve just all stepped up. Dealing with all the change and all the fear and all the stresses, literally every day. Stocking the produce, making the bread, baking the sandwiches and soups and salads, keeping the shelves beautiful, managing the supply chain.

We’re very relationship-focused. The other part of keeping people paid is our supply chain. Chickens are still laying eggs. Cows are still growing. Farmers are farming.  People are depending on us to buy 400 dozen eggs a week. If we closed, that’s 400 dozen eggs a week they have to throw away, turn into something else, sell to someone else, scramble. So we’ve been able to be a reliable customer as well.

When I go grocery shopping, I’ve noticed a different vibe. It’s almost scary. You can’t see people’s faces. It’s hard to smile. How is the morale at Marczyk’s?

Our customers have fed back to us that Marczyk’s is like a sanctuary. It’s the most normal place. We took a lot of steps to do that upfront. We’ve put up social distancing signs that say, “Stay eleven-sixteenths of an Andre the giant apart.” We took steps to de-COVID, not de-serious. 

I think the vibe has been pretty good. Now, the one difference that I can say is we’ve seen a lot of new faces in our stores. A lot of our regular customers have been customers with us for 10, 12, 16, 18 years. We recognize them by voice or their eyes and are able to communicate with them pretty nicely. Having said that, we’ll say, “Hi, welcome to Marczyk’s,” to a lot of the new people and they’ll just look at you from behind their mask and give you another two feet.

We’re not King Soopers, we’re not Safeway. We’re not Costco. People aren’t coming in and buying, you know, three shopping carts of toilet paper. We don’t sell toilet paper. We’ll give you a roll, but we don’t sell it. 

We’ve gotten super good feedback. We’ve gotten more positive Nextdoor, Google, Yelp, personal notes than ever. People are really appreciating it, and we appreciate that they appreciate it. It’s been a little bit of a love fest in spite of a really dark time and a really hard situation. 

Is there anything else you want people to know?

I just can’t say enough about my team. They are absolutely frontline. They are grocery badasses and I’m just so proud of them. 

I’m really proud of our company vision and the fact that it’s really held up through this. It’s been amazingly durable through a really, really tough time, but worthless without this team of neighborhood grocer badasses. I mean, they’ve just been incredible. It has blown me away. 

I think they’re so happy to be working. You know, you said the luxury of staying home. Luxury or hell? I mean, there’re some people who are like, “Yeah, I’ll just stay at home and I’ll read and I’ll catch up on Game of Thrones or whatever.” But, for the most part, people really like to be useful. People really like to be needed. We have never felt more useful or needed than we are right now. I’ll tell you what, we are going to have one hell of a party. Papa’s going to throw a big party.

Thank You

This was TEDxMileHigh’s final Heroes of COVID-19 piece in our six-part series. We spoke with a doctor, a general manager, a teacher, a mask-maker, and hospital environmental services. The series may be over, but the feeling of immense gratitude remains the same. We are grateful to have had the chance to learn from those who take a risk every day to ensure the safety and well-being of everyone else at home. From the TEDxMH community to all of our frontline heroes, those represented in these Q&As, and those we haven’t spoken with, thank you. 

Stay tuned for our next series, where we will highlight activist voices in Colorado bringing light to issues that have taken a back seat to the COVID-19 buzz.