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Local customers, online orders keep the General Store in business

People no longer sit at the General Store’s tables with their coffee, chatting in twos and threes or working by themselves on laptops. No voice from the kitchen calls out customers’ names to pick up salads and sandwiches. From the outside, it looks closed, because many of the lights are off to save energy. But inside, the General is humming with activity all the same.

Where the staff used to make cappuccinos and mocha lattes, two people are working 6 feet apart, putting pickup orders into brown bags and stapling them closed. Tables have been pushed aside to make room for shelves filled with ready-to-go orders, all alphabetized by customers’ names. If an order includes something from the fridge or the freezer, there’s a reminder on the chalkboard near the shelves.

Produce, pastries, pot pies, and Pinot

Bethanie Greenaway, the store’s general manager, described the new arrangements in an email to the Press. She said a skeleton staff of six is now getting the online orders ready for pickup. The line kitchen on the first floor is closed, but the downstairs kitchen is in full swing, making prepared foods and bakery items to go. The cooking staff works staggered shifts to allow for safe spacing.

“We have a great team,” store owner Scott Hayward said in a telephone interview, “and we have more [selections] on the website every day.”

One of the newest online offerings is a big box of fresh vegetables and fruits from Katsiroubas Produce, available for pickup Wednesdays and Saturdays. The store has tried for several years to get someone to sell produce there, as Paul Willard did for a while, Hayward explained, but now wholesalers like Katsiroubas are looking for new markets because the restaurants they regularly sold to are closed. The 25-pound-capacity box (actual weight varies) holds a week’s worth of produce for a family of four, according to the General’s website. The box offers a different mix each week, but always includes some leafy greens and some staples like onions or potatoes.

Hayward, who orders a produce box himself, said he likes the creativity of cooking with the surprises in the box. Last week, for instance, he roasted chunks of butternut squash, combined it with onions and bacon (already on hand), and served the combination over pasta. “We’d like to hear the recipes people come up with” using the produce, he said.

The General’s line of prepared foods ranges from appetizers (dips, cheeses) to hearty salads (Greek pasta, chicken with cranberries) to soups (chicken noodle, carrot ginger, and more), to the very popular chicken pot pie. “We can’t keep up with the demand on the pot pie,” Hayward said. And, of course, there are frozen scones and cookies to bake at home.

Wine and beer sales have gone very well online, almost equal to sales before the shutdown, Hayward said, and people are making some surprising choices. He thinks customers are finding it easier to browse the wine selections online. The result is that they are experimenting, choosing a wider variety of wines than they used to. He cited an Italian red wine from Tarantino that never sold well before but is now quite popular.

A sustainable business model —for now

But is the online business enough to keep the General going? Is the situation sustainable? “I think it is,” Hayward answered after a moment’s thought. The sales per day are down, he said, but costs are down too, with fewer employees working at the General.

While about 250 people came into the store each day before the shutdown, now the small staff is handling between 50 and 75 pickup orders most days. That’s enough to cover the fixed expenses. “The cash flow is working,” Hayward said.

Hayward has applied for several federal assistance programs for small businesses, from funds for the personal protective equipment used by staff members to payroll protection and more. But he has yet to receive a response. “Congress did what it was supposed to do,” he said, but he believes the problem is with the banks.

As for reopening the General Store, “Opening up is a two-way process,” Hayward said. “Customers have to want to come back. … I don’t think of it as opening up—I think of it as ‘What will we do next?’”

Meanwhile, Hayward said he is learning how online commerce differs from brick-and-mortar selling. If someone really wants peanut butter and the General doesn’t have it (because they can’t get retail-size containers), that customer will go elsewhere for peanut butter and also for things the General does have, like wine and soup.

“We’re totally dependent on local people,” Hayward said as the interview ended.

General Store employee Michael Canning delivers an order to a customer Tuesday, May 5. The store offers a wide variety of groceries, beverages, staples, and gifts for online ordering and curbside pickup. (Photo by Lisa Aciukewicz)

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