Heroes of the pandemic

Fighting fears by feeding Minnesota

They’re working 24/7 to make sure that food pantry, co-op and grocery store shelves are stocked, that farmers markets still hum, that prescriptions, produce, meat, toilet paper — and spirits, to keep ours up — are delivered to our door. Suddenly, everybody is grasping the important and complex roles these front-line heroes play; warehouse workers and truck drivers, cashiers and cart cleaners, many channeling their emotional quotients to also comfort, smile and reassure a deeply anxious customer base. As reader Laura Purtell of St. Paul wrote in one of hundreds of thank-yous to these workers this month, “I will never take a grocery trip for granted again.” A good reminder to all of us.

Lee Dexter

Supervalu driver

Just before Lee Dexter heads out for a long shift shuttling groceries across the Twin Cities, he often jokes to his wife, Deb, “I’ve got to go to work. I’ve got a city to feed.” For Dexter and hundreds of grocery store drivers, that’s never been more true as they play a critical role in keeping Minnesotans fed during the pandemic. “You see the shelves and you don’t give a lot of thought of how it works,” said Dexter, 63, of Brooklyn Park. “The job I do is the link between the stores and the warehouse. I realize the responsibility there.” He’s driven trucks for 40 years, but this year is unlike any other. Early on, Dexter worked 72 hours a week to keep up with demand. He’s back to his usual shifts now, unloading pallets wearing a cloth mask and gloves and sanitizing door handles. “I don’t see myself as a hero,” said Dexter, a former Marine. “I’m just doing my job.” Kelly Smith

“Groceries don’t walk themselves to stores. People count on us to get the job done.”

Mohamed Kaba

Warehouse worker, United Natural Foods, Inc.

Mohamed Kaba is a warehouse worker and union steward for United Natural Foods, Inc. Lately, though, he’s added a COVID-inspired role: Soother-in-chief. “I’m constantly with people who are asking me, ‘How do we do our job now? If I get sick, what should I do?’ ” Kaba assures his workers that mandated precautions such as masks, gloves, the use of fork lifts to avoid touching product, and break rooms limited to 10 instead of 50, are among changes designed to keep them as safe as possible as they ship thousands of cases of paper towels, water, canned goods and other essential items to grocery stores across the region. He keeps hand sanitizer in his car and changes his clothes before embracing his three young kids. “We are definitely safe and people don’t have to worry about us, but no time soon will things look normal.”

“Thank God I still have a job and that we are 24/7. We did not and will not stop.”

The Cote Family

You name it, they’ve done it

Here’s a grocery list for you: Bill Cote, Cub grocery manager, Maplewood East. Wife Cari Cote, Juicery manager, Stillwater. Bree (Cote) Butler, 30, customer service manager, Maplewood West. Billy Cote, 24, meat manager, Arden Hills. Melanie Cote, 17, produce stocker, Stillwater. Middle daughter Miranda worked in a Cub deli during college. “There is nowhere I would rather they started to work at age 16,” said Cari, who started at Cub in 1987. “It can turn into a great life career.” Bill agrees. “I’ve always had the sense that customers take us for a pretty menial job, but I look at it as a very necessary part of our community.” He appreciates the newfound gratitude of customers and hopes it sticks. Cari eagerly awaits the return of leisurely catch-ups with neighbors filling their carts. Now, she said, “everyone’s on a mission to get what they need and get back out.”

“You still feel stress in the air but I think it’s calming down.” Bill Cote

Marcia Rowe

Operations supervisor, Lunds & Byerlys

Marcia Rowe sensed things had changed in mid-March with the arrival of something new and palpable at the White Bear Lake Lunds & Byerlys: Fear. “You could see it and hear it in customers’ voices,” she said. Rowe, a people person, gathered the staff to train them in new protocols: wiping down surfaces, bagging only if customers requested it and doing their best to find products in short supply. Maybe the most important lesson for the masked staff was this: “I reminded them,” she said, “to smile with their eyes.” Rowe, of Vadnais Heights, helped run a gymnastics center for 20 years before making a career shift. Her job includes overseeing surging online orders and noticing what gets touched — counters, carts, corners — so it can be sanitized. What hasn’t changed, she said, “is my goal to make sure our customers get the best service and stay safe.”

“I’m a hugger and that’s been a very difficult thing.”

Janssen Hang

Director, Hmong American Farmers Association

Janssen Hang was set to run a food safety seminar in Seattle in early March. After it was canceled, Hang sprang into action on the home front. “My concern was how do we support farmers in the Twin Cities because everything is going to change,” said Hang, director of the nonprofit Hmong American Farmers Association (HAFA) and manager of his parents’ popular egg roll trailer at the St. Paul Farmers Market. Fully 70% of Hmong-grown produce is sold at farmers markets; other produce went to schools and restaurants now shuttered. The market had to survive, but safely. It now flows in one direction with 6-foot separations; options for preordering and prepaying are coming soon. Hang is heartened to see people willing to support his vendors. “We’re in an unprecedented time where we are challenged to think differently about food.”

“This is an opportunity to support local farmers and really connect with them.”

Sergei Taracido

Cashier, Kowalski’s Woodbury

Most of Sergei Taracido’s family lives in upstate New York, so COVID-19 was on his radar before it caught the attention of many of his friends. Still, he said he was “in disbelief” as he watched the shifts occurring at the Kowalski’s in Woodbury where he now makes himself available anytime between 9 a.m. and 10 p.m. Shorter conversations with customers. People ordering online “lots more groceries than usual,” such as cold cuts in 2-pound packages instead of a half pound. And so few children in the store. Taracido, 20, works up to 40 hours a week in the wine shop, fulfilling pickup orders or at the cashier/courtesy stations. He’s also studying business at Century College. “We’re just doing our part,” he said, sending out particular thanks to paramedics. “This will blow over eventually.”

“It’s good for our generation to be able to contact people by phone.”

Andrew Silbernagel

Meat department manager, the Wedge Minneapolis

For two weeks, he said, it was like the day before Thanksgiving. Andrew Silbernagel, 36, meat department manager at the Wedge Co-op in Minneapolis, worried that demand would far exceed supply. “But all our vendors really stepped up and increased production, making deliveries at times they normally wouldn’t.” The Wedge’s long-standing relationships with as many as 20 family farms in Minnesota, Wisconsin and Iowa have given the co-op an advantage at this unprecedented time, said Silbernagel (pictured on cover), who worked for the Wedge in college and never left. “I make the phone call and the next day they’re here. Working with people who grow and raise the animal is really paying off at a time like this.” While the intensity has lessened, there are no slow days anymore. That’s OK with him and his veteran staff. “Our cases look beautiful every day.”

“Our staff feels a lot of meaning and importance in their jobs to feed people.”

Maren Hardy

Delivery driver, Haskell’s Minneapolis

Before COVID-19, her deliveries were mostly to downtown businesses and company parties; big orders, few residential. Now it’s nothing for Haskell’s delivery driver Maren Hardy to put 1,000 miles on the company's Ford Focus, traversing the Twin Cities to homes and apartments and greeted with a common refrain: “You are my favorite person.” Hardy walked into work on a Saturday soon after Minnesotans were asked to stay at home to find 200 orders in the queue. “But it makes perfect sense,” said Hardy. “People like to socialize, go to restaurants. When you can’t go out, you’re going to make sure you have it at home.” She easily makes 20 deliveries a day, sometimes assisted by other drivers. She’s grateful for the bump in pay and generous tips when she drops off the goods. “Minnesota Nice is really showing right now.”

“I have so many regulars that I didn’t have before. … We’re family now.”