As the pandemic winds down and I look back at the past year, one of the things that strikes me is the significant role that Willey’s Store played in our pandemic months. The store rose to the challenge, providing groceries and other necessary items in a manner that kept both the community and the store staff safe and healthy. Quite a remarkable feat, if you think about it.

I recently sat down with Rob Hurst to talk about the role the store played during the past year and a half as we battled COVID 19. I am one of the members of the Greensboro/Stannard Emergency Resource Team (GS/ERT), so I know that Rob and Bethany worked closely with this group, attending meetings, seeking advice from our health officers, and receiving information and statistics that helped them manage the store during this difficult time.

My first question to him solicited an unexpected answer. When asked what were some of the biggest challenges, he referenced his many years of playing video games! I was surprised, but he explained that many of the games provide “end of the world” scenarios, and he learned that one of the challenges when recovering from any disaster is to “defend the food source”. So not only did Rob know how important Willey’s is to our community from his years of managing the store, but he understood the necessity of protecting the food supply in any disaster scenario. The only problem was the video games never went into the specifics of how this is done—Rob had to figure out for himself the logistics of how to serve the community safely.

First, he researched to see how things might have been handled in previous disasters, but he found no helpful information. Fortunately, he had lots of help and support from his staff and together they brainstormed and came up with a system. They approached the challenge with what Rob called a “restaurant mentality”. The orders were received, put on a cue line and then processed in assembly-line fashion. The thinking was “We will just do the shopping for them!!”.

However, it quickly became apparent this was not as simple as it sounded. There was a learning curve for both customers and staff and changes were quickly made to improve the system. An email account was set up which was more efficient than phoning in the orders. Customers learned to be specific—not just a “can of tomato sauce” but specify what size and brand. There were occasionally inventory shortages, so the staff learned to substitute and customers learned to deal with whatever arrived and were grateful.

An essential part of the system was the volunteers who delivered the groceries to people who were in quarantine or isolation. These volunteers were identified from a list that the GS/ERT had put together, and Rob emphasized they were key to the success of the system. Orders for those not in quarantine were bagged up, labeled with the customer’s name, and set on shelving outside the store for no-contact pick-up. Payment was either by credit card, or in-store account.

It is amazing that Willey’s managed to come through the pandemic months without a COVID outbreak. There were incidences where staff had brushes with COVID, but through quarantine and other precautions, there were no cases at the store. It was especially important that neither Rob nor Bethany got sick. The store could manage on its own for a week or two, but any longer would be disastrous.

It is also amazing that even though the store’s doors were closed during the worst months of the pandemic, the supply of food continued uninterrupted. This enabled our community to stay “sheltered in place” and avoid the risk of a trip to the super market. We are grateful for the motivation and ingenuity that kept Willey’s going and all the people who put themselves at risk to serve our community.

Rob wrapped up our interview by stating how grateful he and Bethany are for the community support that Willey’s has always enjoyed, and specifically the extra support during the pandemic. Keeping everyone safe was a community effort and he said our success is “a testimony to Greensboro and how we take care of each other. That’s how it is!” Amen to that!