General Manager of Briar Patch Food Co-op
Chris Maher has been a tireless advocate of sustainable and profitable agriculture for small and medium local farmers. Through his work and volunteering in Grass Valley, California, he has been instrumental in improving food systems in his region and beyond.
Chris is a 2020 Emerging Leader in Food & Ag Award recipient. Recently, he took the time to update us on how the pandemic has impacted his work over the last year.
Emerging Leaders in Food & Ag (EL): Tell us a little about what you’ve been up to in the last 6-12 months? How (if at all) did 2020 and all its unexpected craziness influence your work?
Chris Maher (CM): The last year has been about dexterity and flexibility.
We are essential workers in the grocery industry. We put together a pandemic response team who authored and implemented a plan to respond to the rapidly changing environment. We focused primarily on employee safety and supply change management. We put strong safety protocols into place and have fortunately avoided any outbreak among staff.
Our first challenge was surge, panic buying. As we were told to physically distance for safety, customers filled our store, buying everything they could get their hands on in anticipation of being sheltered-in-place for an indeterminate amount of time. Even after the initial surges, changes in the external situation, whether edicts from the local or state government or reports of local outbreaks, inspired additional surges. Even after the calm, we found that customers settled into a new pattern of shopping less often with larger baskets. With reduced staffing and metering of customer traffic this enormously changed our operations. The supply chain has still only partly recovered.
Our second challenge was responding to directives from the government that affected our retail operations. Areas of our store were shuttered by decree and we had to respond to get people what they needed in new ways. This drove creativity among management and staff.
Following that, we had to ensure that protocols were in place to respond to staff exposure to the virus and then infection. As with many other things, the illness was slow to reach our rural county which gave us ample time to prepare. We engaged our staff to understand what concerns they had and worked with them to brainstorm effective solutions and then to deploy, assess, and revise them.
EL: What lessons have you learned that you are taking into 2021?
CM: As with all things, communication is key. We know that our community experienced significant fatigue and uncertainty. Positioning ourselves as a place of safety and thoughtfulness gave our shoppers the confidence that they could safely continue shopping. In addition, flexibility is important. The environment is quickly changing at all times. The pandemic made that even more apparent. It is important to be able to try new things and pivot quickly. Freedom to fail was not a big part of our culture before. We like to get it right. The pandemic demanded that we not let perfection get in the way of the good. This is valuable regardless of the environment.
EL: What’s next for you?
CM: We are currently focusing on getting staff access to vaccines and seeing our way to immunity. There is significant fatigue everywhere, but the light at the end of the tunnel is growing. We signed a lease on a second store at the end of 2020. Our work will be to ensure readiness for that big project. It gives us all something to be excited about.
EL: What gives you hope for the next year? Or, alternatively, what is your greatest hope for the next year?
CM: We are very excited by our new store. Our store’s success depends largely on our work with local farmers and food producers. The demand for these types of products has only risen. We see that our work can continue to have impact for our region. People understand the need for resiliency both individually and as a community. We have a big role to play in that.