A1 A1
top story
'Nothing really compared to this': What a grocery manager saw during COVID
  • Updated
  • 4 min to read

At first it was just busy, like it is around the holidays, though there were signs. Food banks were starting to stock up. A customer might ask for a case of something, instead of a can.

One elderly woman packed her car completely full of groceries, Jake Turant, the grocery manager at the Price Chopper supermarket in Keene, recalled.

“I was like, ‘What are you doing with all this?’ ” Turant said. “She’s like, ‘I’m just, I’m worried about this.’ She’s like, ‘I got it in every closet in my house.’ ”

Then everything changed.

“It was just like a flick of a switch,” Turant said.

It was March 2020, when the reality of the pandemic set in and flipped daily life on its head. As schools and restaurants closed and people stockpiled supplies, grocery stores saw surging demand.

At Price Chopper, it seemed to happen overnight. From one day to the next, Turant recalled, the Keene store went from busy to perhaps four or five times its usual sales. There was no warning, no time to staff up. They opened all the registers and did what they could.

Aaron Lipsky  

Jake Turant

“I’ve seen snowstorms, hurricane stuff, floods, whatever,” said Turant, 34, who has worked in the industry for 18 years. “Nothing really compared to this.”

The store became “like Disneyland,” he said. “I had lines going down around the store. It looked like Black Friday, but every day for weeks.”

Turant’s in charge of scheduling employees who work in the nonperishable grocery sections, receiving deliveries, getting product on the shelves and keeping things in stock. A Hinsdale native who still lives in town, Turant said he started working at the Price Chopper in Brattleboro when he needed a job in high school; the hours worked out. He stayed with it. He’s been a manager for about 12 years, and transferred to the Keene store three or four years ago.

“It’s one of those things you just, you can’t live without, you know,” he said of his work. “You get some time off, and you just want to go back to it.”

He said he especially likes interacting with people on the job.

“You never really know what you’re walking into,” he said. “You have good days, bad days, but you know, one person may get you down, and the next one might just lift you right up.”

Early in the pandemic, he said, he and his team would sometimes put in 16-hour days. The store has a computer-generated ordering system, but it can’t respond to major swings in demand, so staff had to manually override it to order the volumes they needed, he said. Their shipments were unpredictable; some days, they might get a truck with just two pallets.

“We had no clue what was coming, what wasn’t coming,” he said.

That turned into more consistent shortages.

“Toilet paper was the first to go, we all know that,” Turant said. “And then canned goods.”

At the same time, the staff was implementing all sorts of new pandemic-safety protocols. Word would come down from headquarters that they had, say, a couple hours to comply with a state requirement that all aisles be one-way.

“And we’re running out there, we’re grabbing whoever we can and doing whatever, getting duct-tape down on the floor,” Turant said — all while customers, continuing to shop, asked what was going on.

It felt eerie at times. Price Chopper employees, as essential workers, were given “travel papers” exempting them from certain restrictions. “That really hit home and made it a thing,” he said. “Really put some concern into your mind.”

In the store, “it became very scary when you don’t see stuff showing up,” he said. “I mean, our trucks always ran, but at a point, you know, we’ve all seen that movie where it’s the end of the world, and the shelves are empty, and they’re kind of like, ‘What’s going on? Is this it?’ ”

Working long hours, he didn’t have much time at home in those days. Concerned for his parents, he delivered all their groceries personally for about a month, grabbing whatever products were still left after one of his shifts. “The first couple times, they’re like, ‘What do you mean, you don’t have butter or bread or something?’ ” he said.

Turant said he would think about the young people working in entry-level jobs.

“It’s their first job as a cashier, and they’re really out there on the front lines,” he said. “We didn’t know what this all was at the time. So it was very scary.”

The store was careful with hand-washing, sanitizing and other protocols, he said, and allowed employees to go on leave if they were older, had health concerns or suddenly had children out of school.

He said he and others able to work were motivated by their job’s importance. “We realized that if we’re not here, people aren’t getting food on the table.”

Though customers were sometimes frustrated by the empty shelves, Turant said the community was mostly “pretty understanding, and pretty great.”

The most intense period lasted about three months, he recalled, though the challenges have continued. Demand stayed high, restrictions remained, shortages continued. It’s also been hard to find enough workers, he said. “We’ll hire for anything right now.”

But he said the end seems to finally be in sight.

So what will a return to normal look like?

“The day I don’t wear a mask,” he said. “To be able to see, like, a co-worker’s actual face.”

Read more in this series:

top story
After lost year, owners of Keene food truck are ready to get rolling
  • Updated
  • 4 min to read

Austin Reida and Kayla Borden were ready to secure their place in the local gastronomic scene last year.

The Alstead couple — who are engaged — know the food industry well, having met around 2007 at Brewbakers Cafe in Keene, where Borden worked and which Reida’s family owned at the time.

In 2018, they decided on a whim to open the food truck Street & Savory, serving locally and ethically sourced comfort food. (They have since renamed the truck Street Savory.) A year later, Borden and Reida took over the kitchen at Branch and Blade Brewing on Bradco Street in Keene and opened a restaurant there.

Things were looking good for 2020.

“The restaurant was doing well, it was growing,” Reida said earlier this month. “The truck’s event calendar was full. We expected that to be a really great year.”

None of their experience prepared them for a global health crisis, though.

The novel coronavirus presented an immediate problem for Street Savory: Social distancing is impossible in a food truck. With employees working shoulder-to-shoulder, Reida said the business made sure they were wearing masks at all times.

Even at Branch and Blade, where customers could sit on the patio outside, the early lack of information about COVID-19 meant taking rigorous — even neurotic — precautions.

“We were literally walking around the restaurant … sanitizing every surface like every five minutes,” Reida said. “The wooden doors had stains from the amount of sanitizer we were spraying on them.”

He and Borden weren’t sure how the pandemic would affect sales, which they had anticipated would be strong last year.

Initially, it was a boon.

The business easily transitioned to a takeout-only model when New Hampshire banned on-site dining, since it was used to serving customers from the truck, Borden and Reida said. Sales jumped threefold.

“We were doing flat-out slammed business, open to close, with no breaks really,” Reida said. “The volume of food we were putting out was absurd.”

That changed quickly, however, and the couple stopped taking pay as revenue waned.

Since Street Savory had opened only two years earlier — and the restaurant just the year before — the business didn’t have deep coffers. Nor did it have a financial record long enough to qualify for many of the pandemic-era relief programs available to small businesses. All it received was a small loan from the federal government’s Paycheck Protection Program, Reida said.

“We would have loved to close and take some time and decompress or whatever, but we couldn’t afford to,” he said. “We’ve had to just hustle.”

That meant mounting stress for Borden and Reida.

Event organizers who had hired Street Savory to cater large gatherings — which the truck relies on heavily — postponed or canceled outright. Reida estimates the business lost $400,000 in projected sales last year.

Only one of the six weddings Street Savory was scheduled to work happened, Borden said, and even that event was challenging because as the food provider, Street Savory was responsible for enforcing COVID-related safety protocols.

“I’m not going up to the bride to tell her she has to put on a mask,” she said, laughing.

With no income, the couple began struggling to pay their bills. Their credit suffered. Reida worried they could lose their home.

He and Borden said the anxiety in their professional life strained their relationship.

Reida, a former EMT for DiLuzio Ambulance Service in Keene and firefighter and EMT in Alstead, compared the emotional toll of navigating the pandemic as a small business owner to the adrenaline involved in emergency response — except it didn’t subside.

“When everything’s an emergency all day … you run out of emergency hormones that regulate those things,” he said. “You run out of the reserves that you live with — you tap into that over and over until you’re just exhausted.”

Street Savory announced in early September that it would close its kitchen at Branch and Blade and pause food-truck operations due to the financial challenges facing the business.

In a Facebook post announcing their decision, Borden and Reida said there was “no way” they could survive the winter due to capacity limits on indoor dining.

Those restrictions, along with hesitancy about returning to public spaces, have squeezed many Granite State eateries: More than 200 have shuttered during the pandemic, according to the N.H. Restaurant and Lodging Association.

“It’s a really tough industry,” Reida said. “It’s exhausting in the best of times, and then when you get decimated by a pandemic, it’s kind of intolerable.”

When he and Borden paused operations at Street Savory and went into his previous line of work — contracting — they considered shutting down the truck for good. But their employees resisted.

“We kind of announced, ‘Everything’s going,’ ” Borden said. “… Our staff were like, ‘No, you can’t.’ ”

So she and Reida jumped at an opportunity to reopen their truck at Modestman Brewing late last year, when the downtown Keene brewery was planning to close its own food truck, Guru, for the winter. With no assurance that Street Savory would earn enough to let them take salary, the couple stayed in contracting and have let their small staff — led by chef Ian Rota — handle day-to-day operations of the truck since November with a mandate only to break even, Reida said.

“That’s exactly what happened,” he said. “… Everybody on board just totally gave their hearts to it and kept it going and just wanted to be there. There was a lot of love in our group.”

Street Savory has enjoyed a renaissance at Modestman, according to Borden and Reida.

The brewery is at the heart of the downtown scene, so there’s always heavy foot traffic, unlike at Branch and Blade’s location in south Keene. And the taproom is large enough to accommodate plenty of customers even under social-distancing guidelines, Reida said, meaning they can eat inside or on its outdoor patios.

“We didn’t make much over the winter, but we didn’t lose money either,” he said. “We kept it alive.”

Yet danger still lurks. Borden and Reida know that a COVID-19 case — or outbreak — on their staff could force Street Savory to close temporarily and create more financial trouble.

“A huge amount of it’s just luck,” Reida said. “I know other businesses that are super, super conscious [of safety protocols] and still had cases. We’ve been asking ourselves every day since it started, ‘When’s it our turn? When do we get hit?’ ”

With warmer weather arriving and more people getting vaccinated, he and Borden are nearly ready to start running the truck full-time again.

Two trucks, actually.

The couple recently took over Modestman’s own food truck, which they plan to rebrand and reopen on the brewery’s back patio soon. That will create more kitchen space and also allow the Street Savory truck, which will remain based at Modestman, to resume catering large events.

On the docket this year: weddings and dozens of concerts at the Cheshire Fairgrounds venue Northlands (formerly Drive-In Live).

The couple is confident that after several years struggling just to remain viable, their business is finally turning a corner.

“I think we’re at the place now that we were before COVID,” Reida said. “Like, alright, we’ve paid our dues.”

More in this series:

top story
Troy's historic Capron Shoe Shop to get new life in Loudon

TROY — For the better part of two centuries, a small building stood at the corner of South Main and South streets, the historic home of the Capron Shoe Shop.

Now, there’s an empty space.

After several unsuccessful attempts over the years to raise enough money to salvage the roughly 16x22-foot building and move it elsewhere in town, it appeared doomed for demolition.

Then Richard Wright made a call.

Wright, a blacksmith in town, has worked before with Colin Cabot, the founder and president of Sanborn Mills Farm in Loudon. The nonprofit is dedicated to teaching traditional farming and craft skills, including blacksmithing.

“And I know Colin is interested in saving old buildings,” Wright said.

After hearing from Wright last month, Cabot made a few more calls and, by the end of last week, he and a crew of carpenters successfully dismantled the old shoe shop, put it on trailers, and took it to Sanborn Mills Farm, where it will be reconstructed.

“We haven’t made a definitive plan about how we would like to use it again, but it would be perfect as sort of a welcome center, attached to one end of an old greenhouse that we’re putting up,” Cabot said. “And it fits perfectly on the site where it would go, and it would be a place for people to check in when they first got to the farm, on the way from the parking [lot] on the edge of our campus.”

Cabot added that he still needs to consult with the farm’s board of directors on when the shop will be rebuilt, but hopes it will happen “sooner than later.” When it does go up, Cabot said the building will include a display explaining its history, and how it got to the farm.

According to the Troy Village Historic District’s successful nomination for the National Register of Historic Places in 2002, the shop was built in 1846 by James Capron, a Winchester native born in 1808. He married Sophronia Aldrich of Troy in 1832, and they lived in Jaffrey and elsewhere before returning to Troy in 1846.

Capron worked as a shoemaker in the shop for 36 years before his death in 1882. His son Joseph F. Capron joined him as a cobbler, and the shop was still active at the time of Joseph’s death in 1892.

“The Capron Shoe Shop is a rare survivor of a significant vernacular building type and is important for its ability to yield information to document the early nineteenth century shoe trade in the Monadnock Region,” the nomination form states. “Similar shops have been demolished or converted to other uses as the industry changed.”

Dick Thackston, who most recently owned the Capron Shoe Shop property and donated it to Sanborn Mills Farm, said the building embodies New Hampshire’s history as a manufacturing state.

“And the Capron Shoe Shop reflects that, in that when the railroads started coming in, the way industry was formatted in New Hampshire is that people literally had cottage industries,” said Thackston, a Realtor who also serves as chair of the Troy selectboard.

Cobblers like the Caprons would work in cottages throughout the state, producing shoes that would eventually be sent by train to Boston, Thackston said.

“It significantly reflects how industry developed in New Hampshire,” he said of the Capron Shoe Shop’s legacy.

The Troy Historical Society had tried beginning in 2019 to raise funds to move the building to town-owned space at the Cheshire Railroad Depot, according to historical society member Lynn Smith. The building’s previous owners had agreed to gift the shop to the town if it could be moved off their property, she added.

But by the end of last year, “it was clear to the group that this was a project too big in scope for such a small (and older) group,” Smith said in an email.

After the historical society dropped out of the project, and Wright learned that the building could be demolished, he called Cabot at Sanborn Mills Farm.

“It’s a shame that it had to leave Troy, but now it’s going to be restored over there [in Loudon],” Wright said.

Smith added that, “Given the age and historical significance of the structure, I am pleased it will be re-established elsewhere. It would have been great to have it at the [railroad] site, [but] to have it just torn down would have been tragic. I am looking forward to seeing it back together.”

Despite its age, Cabot said the building is still solid, and will make a great addition to Sanborn Mills Farm.

“It was on a foundation which was sort of falling in, but the building itself was square and straight, which was a testament to the fact that it was really well built when it was first done,” he said.

Cabot and several carpenters from the farm, along with a team from the Canterbury-based Fifield Building Restoration & Relocation, dismantled the building beginning Friday, April 9, and over the course of the following week, he said. In the process, they learned a great deal about the structure. For instance, he said, they saw how the shop’s slate roof, which sat atop wooden shingles, helped preserve the building.

“You can’t reuse wooden shingles, but you can reuse slate shingles,” Cabot said. “And the slate was in pretty good shape, and because slate is such a good roofing material, the building had never really suffered any serious damage.”

He added that New England as a whole has a history of adapting and reusing old buildings like this.

“And that’s why we are proud to do it,” Cabot said. “And people who do it learn from doing it, because you take things apart, you see how they were built and the level of craftsmanship that went into all of this stuff.”

And, he said, these lessons about historic craftmanship, and the process of moving the Cabot Shoe Shop, exemplify the core goals of Sanborn Mills Farm.

“One of the virtues of a craft school is that it celebrates the traditional crafts that were needed to do things like build these buildings and take them apart and move them around,” he said. “So, if we can keep those skills going, and by example show people that you can indeed take a beautiful old building and save it and reuse it, rather than just put it in a dumpster, that’s one of the mandates of our school as an educational mission.”

Thackston, for his part, added that he’s thrilled the Capron Shoe Shop will have new life in Loudon.

“I think it was a win for everybody,” he said. “I was very pleased with it. I thought it was really a tremendous opportunity, really for the whole state.”

US lifts pause on Johnson & Johnson vaccine

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention rescinded their pause on the use of Johnson & Johnson’s COVID-19 vaccine Friday, clearing the way for states to resume immunizations with the single-dose shot.

The decision came just hours after a federal advisory panel recommended that immunizations with the J&J vaccine be resumed despite a tiny risk of blood clots.

On a 10-4 vote, the CDC’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices reaffirmed its earlier guidance that the vaccine be used for people ages 18 and up.

Safety concerns about the shot arose from six cases of a rare and perplexing clotting disorder seen among recipients of the single-shot vaccine. All six of those cases involved women between the ages of 18 and 48.

The blood clots were unusual because they were accompanied by a dangerously low level of platelets, the building blocks of blood clots.

The initial six cases rose to 15 when safety experts went back and reviewed records of adverse reactions to the J&J vaccine. All of those cases involved women, and all but one was under 50.

Even so, the advisory panel said the risk was still tiny — in effect 1.9 cases per million people in the general population, or 7 cases per million women under 50.

Scientific and medical teams at the FDA and CDC agreed, having determined that the “known and potential benefits” of the vaccine outweigh its “known and potential risks.”

“The FDA and CDC have confidence that this vaccine is safe and effective in preventing COVID-19,” the agencies said in a joint statement, adding that they “will remain vigilant in continuing to investigate this risk.”

The CDC advisory panel rejected a plan that would have explicitly called on women between the ages of 18 and 50 to “be aware” of the risk of the clotting disorder and make clear that they “may choose” another COVID-19 vaccine.

Panel members cautioned that such language might be seen as requiring these women to give explicit consent to taking the Johnson & Johnson shot, or that it might oblige vaccine clinics to carry alternative vaccines, thereby imposing logistical and other constraints that could hamper vaccination.

The FDA granted emergency use authorization for the J&J vaccine in February.

Vaccine experts said Friday’s moves also would have broad — albeit unofficial — implications across the globe, since other countries look to the world’s most stringent regulators to set the standard for safety.

When the FDA and CDC first called for the pause, public health leaders worried it might wind up costing more lives than it saved, especially in poorer countries where skepticism about the vaccines runs high and other immunization options are limited.

“This is going to assist in restoring confidence in the vaccine. There isn’t any doubt about that,” said Dr. William Schaffner, an infectious disease expert at Vanderbilt University.

Around the world, he said, “ministries of health are going to take notice of this action.”

In Los Angeles County, health officials said they expect to resume distribution within a day or two.

“We are prepared to resume very quickly,” said Dr. Paul Simon, chief science officer for the L.A. County Department of Public Health. “We are in the process of developing or finalizing education materials for clients and also providers so we can move forward in the safest way.”

Still unknown is whether members of the public will have cooled to the Johnson & Johnson vaccine despite the CDC panel’s insistence that it’s safe for shots to resume.

“It’s still not entirely clear how much of a setback this has been,” Simon said. “We don’t want to see vaccine shopping. We really want to see people get the first vaccine available to them.”

The pause does not appear to have limited vaccine access in L.A. County, since supplies of the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines remained high and demand for the shots has slowed, he added.