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Grocers struggle to keep shelves stocked after storms

Local resident Ali Hadfi picks up a loaf of bread for his family in a grocery store prior to a snowstorm February 5, 2010 in Alexandria, Virginia.
Local resident Ali Hadfi picks up a loaf of bread for his family in a grocery store prior to a snowstorm February 5, 2010 in Alexandria, Virginia. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)
By Brigid Schulte
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 12, 2010

At the crack of dawn Thursday morning, the snowy skies finally clearing, Roy Rodman waited anxiously for the milk truck.

Rodman, owner of Rodman's discount grocery store in Northwest Washington, knows customers want exactly what they want when they want it. In a snowstorm, they want milk, lots of milk. He'd ordered 100 cases on Monday -- four times the usual order. And he had been cleared out since Tuesday evening, save the soy and shelf-stable Parmalat.

He had special-ordered another big shipment from his primary dairy supplier in Baltimore for Wednesday, but visibility in the blizzard was so bad that the handful of drivers who showed up weren't allowed out. Wednesday's milk never came.

Washingtonians hit by back-to-back monumental snowstorms have been buying groceries in near hoarding quantities over the past week. They've been quick to post online photos of empty grocery shelves and to trade the latest intelligence on which stores are stocked and which have only Chinese long beans, kohlrabi and rutabagas. One D.C. blog even published photos of a Safeway store depleted of its condom supply.

But behind the empty shelves lies an intricate, nail-biting logistical ballet in which grocers such as Rodman, buyers, drivers, distributors and shelf stockers work overtime, make deals, call in favors, whine, wheedle and cajole to get customers what they want when they want it.

It hasn't been easy. To hedge his bets, Rodman also ordered milk from a secondary supplier, Bozzuto's, a wholesaler out of Connecticut. But that truck wouldn't come until Friday.

Worried, Rodman had been calling Cloverland Green Spring Dairy in Baltimore all Thursday morning. The milk would be deliveredif the dairy could find a driver, Rodman was told, and then only if the driver could make it through the snowy and icy roads. "I'm hoping they'll be coming in a few hours," Rodman said.

At the Whole Foods distribution center in Landover, three produce buyers hunched around a paper-strewn table, laptops open, baseball caps drawn low over their foreheads, talking bananas.

Their shipment arrived by boat earlier in the week and was trucked to their ripener in Jessup. But the ripener closed shop in the storm Wednesday and wasn't scheduled to open until mid-afternoon Thursday, leaving some stores without bananas.

The clementines had been sitting on a boat docked in Philadelphia. "The pier was closed Wednesday," said Jeff Patterson, the Whole Foods produce purchasing team leader, rubbing his face. "They're not open Friday. They don't work weekends and they're closed Monday."

The stories are similar at nearly every area grocery store. Deliveries are backed up because governments or landlords have been slow to clear roads, parking lots and especially loading dock areas.

Joe Strong, who runs the Whole Foods warehouse, waited all day Wednesday for three trucks from California that were stuck in snowy mountain passes in Tennessee and Kentucky, knowing that if the drivers hit 11 straight hours on the road, federal law required 10 hours of rest before they could climb back into their cabs. (They finally arrived before dawn Thursday.)

Managers tell of employees who made herculean walks through the snow or stayed at hotels to be able to stock shelves. "The main thing we want to do is have product in the store," Strong said. "Because when you walk into a store and want a salad, there's nothing more disappointing than not being able to find it."

There is a distinct psychology to storm shoppers, grocers said. The day before a storm, feeding-frenzy conditions prevail. The day before last week's storm and again before Wednesday's blizzard, sales at the area's 37 Whole Foods stores surpassed those the day before Thanksgiving, Strong's busiest day of the year. Frantic store managers rented box trucks or drove their own cars to the warehouse to replenish their stock.

Rodman, whose family has run stores for more than 50 years, has been working longtime contacts by phone for days. When D-cell batteries sold out, he had his supplier in New York send 400 packs overnight and hedged that with a couple of hundred more from a sundries house in Baltimore.

"It's all about relationships," he said.

By 3 p.m. Thursday, the produce truck had come, and the cucumbers and apples were stacked in fat piles. The Tropicana supplier sent an e-mail that deliveries wouldn't be coming all week; anticipating that, Rodman had already ordered juice from Bozzuto's.

He spent the morning flagging down snowplows to clear the narrow side street that leads to his parking lot and loading dock.

The milk truck still hadn't made it by 6 p.m., but Rodman was ready.

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