The bustling, shoulder-to-shoulder weekend crowds along Penn Avenue are now gone, replaced by an eerie emptiness as the world hunkers down in quarantine.
The Strip District, however, is still open for business.
As shoppers pour into Giant Eagle and other major chains around town — forcing many of them to limit the number of shoppers at one time — the city’s small, locally-owned grocers have room to spare and stocked shelves.
There is also, for once, plenty of parking. But don’t forget your masks!
Pennsylvania Macaroni Co.
David Sunseri is on a one-man mission to save the Strip District.
“You have to wear gloves (as well as masks) when you come in here, which we’re providing for free,” says Sunseri.
Even if you have your own gloves, you have to put on fresh ones, and you need to stay at least six feet from everyone. Glass barriers shield the register checkouts and some of the food.
“We’ve been pretty proactive making it safe for people in ‘the new normal,’” says Sunseri. “We’re very leery, if God forbid, someone comes in with that virus, it’ll put us out of business. We’re doing the best we can.”
He’s ordering takeout for dinner at local restaurants — that he has supplied for years — every night.
“We’re hurting too, but they’re hurting big time,” says Sunseri. “That’s what we’re trying to do as a team. Pretty much every day, I buy lunch for my entire staff from the restaurants that support us.” And he’s keeping all his employees on, even if there’s not enough work.
Online ordering is helping Penn Mac weather the storm. They also ship food just about anywhere.
“At this point we’re doing tremendous amounts of pickups in the car,” says Sunseri. “You place your order online or by phone, and we have it ready the next day. You just pull up in the alley, call our number and we bring it out to the car. It’s worked out pretty good.”
It’s been noted that a lot of people are baking bread in quarantine. That checks out at Penn Mac.
“The last three weeks our best selling items have been yeast and flour,” says Sunseri. “Eventually there will be a shortage because everyone’s baking. For Easter, a lot of people were making paska bread.”
Reyna, the tiny Mexican grocer in the Strip, is still packed to the ceiling with pinatas and hot sauces, but there’s no need to worry about observing proper social distancing procedures. There just aren’t enough customers to make that necessary.
“We’re down to about a third or a fourth of our normal revenue,” says Linda Jones, who co-owns Reyna with Nick DiCio. “We still have business but it’s not even near what it was before.”
Everything is in stock right now.
Jones had been planning a trip to Mexico so she had the store organized and stocked for her departure. Now she has a stockpile of tortilla chips since restaurants are closed.
She was able to get a special Argentine dough for making empanadas awhile back, but doesn’t know if that will be as easily obtained in the future.
Some things are selling really well. “Tortillas, pre-made salsas, a lot of flours, rice and beans — staples like that are the big sellers,” says Jones. “When toilet paper was running out, we ran out of black beans.”
Cleaning is the main job when the store is empty. “I know that Cathy (Crosby, an employee) is really into always bleaching everything and cleaning everything,” says Jones. “ I think she’s taking it to another level now.”
While business has been slow, she’s hopeful for a boost from Cinco de Mayo.
“Cinco de Mayo is like Mexican Christmas for me,” explains Jones.
Stamoolis Brothers Co.
Greek and Mediterranean grocer Stamoolis Brothers isn’t letting people inside the store, but they’re definitely open.
“We are adjusting for the safety of our customers and employees,” says Catina Stamoolis. “We’re offering curbside pickup and shipping only. You can order online or over the phone in advance. We’ve heard customers tell us that some of the larger supermarkets have two weeks’ wait for curbside pickup. You can call us and get it the same day.”
Patrons can visit the store between 8:30 a.m. and 3 p.m. for pickup.
“We’re also offering a service where people come up to the door and we’ll do the shopping for them while they wait,” explains Stamoolis.
The family has been in business in the Strip for more than 100 years so they know about working through hard times.
“Our business has been serving Pittsburgh through the Great Depression and World War II, and we’ve been able to persevere and adapt and provide people the food they need,” says Stamoolis.
“We still have stocked shelves: pasta, olive oils, cheeses. We have another shipment of flour coming at the end of the week.” And they’ve still got plenty of their famous feta cheese.
With a slight hesitation, she mentions, “We do have paper goods — a small selection of paper towels and toilet paper.”
They’re adding items to their website as fast as possible. So far, their supply chain is holding up.
“There’s delays on some things, but we’re still able to source our products,” says Stamoolis. “We do sell a large quantity from overseas. But our containers from overseas arrived a little before (the crisis). We were lucky and stocked up for awhile.”
They’re also responding to what customers want. “We are going to be bringing in local milk for customers who keep requesting it,” says Stamoolis.
Robert Wholey Company
One of the Strip’s most iconic groceries, the meat and seafood specialists Robert Wholey Company, is still doing “a brisk business” through the crisis.
“We’ve been in business since 1912; we’ve seen a lot,” says owner Dan Wholey. “Fortunately, the supply of fish is steady, the supply of meat is steady, and we’re rising to the occasion. We’re very proud to be part of this community, and to be able to help the community.”
Though the aisles are narrow and packed with seafood, meat and produce, employees are still making the effort to stay away from each other, and from customers.
“We’re certainly practicing social distancing, and keeping people six feet apart,” says Wholey. “All of our employees are wearing masks. We’re in good shape there. We’ve put up screens at our checkout counters.”
Having some options for getting people their food helps.
“We’re doing a lot of curbside pickup, and customer business in the store itself,” says Wholey.
Other Strip District grocers still open
A good list of Strip District grocers and other businesses — restaurants, coffee shops and more — still open for business (and those that are closed) can be found here. Directions for how to get groceries (ordering online, curbside pickup, delivery, etc.) are provided.
Those open for business include:
More small Pittsburgh grocers (outside the Strip) still open:
East End Food Co-op, Point Breeze
Donatelli’s Italian Food Store, Bloomfield
Panda Supermarket, Squirrel Hill
Bombay Food Market, Oakland
Groceria Merante, Oakland
Linea Verde Green Market, Bloomfield
Las Palmas, Brookline
Leonard Labriola’s Italian Markets, four locations
Market Street Grocery, Downtown