Small Town Grocers Scramble to Feed Their Communities

Summer 2020 by Mayzie Purviance Photos by RITW

The coronavirus continues to send shocks across Montana, putting a real strain on the food supply. 

Grocery stores were among the few places where Montanans could actually visit while under the stay-at-home order from late March to late April, and these specific businesses experienced some good things, some bad things, and catered to the hungry.

Shawn Halvorsen, general manager of Beartooth Market, an IGA store, in Red Lodge, said the chaos he experienced in the beginning at his store was like nothing he’d ever seen before.

“My back stock up on the coolers usually has hundreds and hundreds of packages (of toilet paper and paper towels) that I normally buy in pallets to keep the price down,” he said. “We went from being completely stocked up and having more than enough to being out in hours.”

Halvorsen said the dream of every grocery store manager is to have a full store with happy customers and full carts — but this wasn’t like a dream. Eventually, the store had to place a limit on how much toilet paper, Clorox wipes and bleach people could buy.

One bit of good news, Halvorsen said, was that the pandemic really shined a light on how essential grocery stores are to a community, and he for one is pleased with the way his staff handled the situation.

“All the grocery stores around here are trying as hard as they possibly can to keep up with something that none of us expected to ever happen — it’s definitely unique times and I’m thankful for a hard-working staff,” he said. 

Shaw Polanski, assistant store manager for Town & Country in Livingston, echoed these comments.

“As far as employees go, this situation brought everyone together,” Polanski said. “We know all the hard work we’ve put in and everyone really stepped up.”

Polanski said the employees at his store came together and so did the customers.

“There was a job to get done and we all worked together to get it there,” Polanski said. “The whole community of Livingston really came together and showed their appreciation for what we do.”

Polanski said the customers were very understanding of new protocols and changes made to reduce the risk of spreading the virus. 

“Sales are definitely up. The amount of products going off the shelves is way more than we would have this time of year. Those first few days were really crazy, but it did start to let up,” Polanski said. “I’m glad customers have calmed down a little bit. They know our shelves are becoming more stocked every day and we’re working with our distributors.”

Halvorsen said that at his store, since the initial rush, things have calmed down as far as customers go as well. However, food supplies may be running a bit short.

“There’s a whole gamut of how we deal with customers now: social distancing, wearing masks, putting plexi-glass dividers at our check stands, some of our food is a little more difficult to get,” Halvorsen said. “We’ve found that our manufactures are making their core products and not making some of the extras anymore. Meat is starting to become stressful. Swift Pork is becoming unavailable and that’s our primary supplier for pork … so it’s becoming a fight.”

With more basic food items in high demand, it’s hard to keep those items stocked. However, it’s important to keep in mind our grocery store workers are working around the clock to give us all the products we need to keep us fed, happy, and healthy — and we need to show them our appreciation for doing so.



© 2020 Raised in the West Magazine