LOCALS HELPING LOCALS
Consider the hurricane: It’s far off and deadly. It’s probably not coming…not coming…growing in intensity — but still not coming…maybe…no, definitely not coming…well, maybe — wait, no…it’s not — oh no, it’s here! HEAD FOR THE SUPERMARKET! As it turns out, pandemics look a lot like that, too. In the earliest days of this shelter-in-place era, as COVID-19 washed its way across the United States, people rushed to grocery stores to stock up on supplies. National chains buckled under the demand; they weren’t set up for this sort of crisis. Rouses, though, is local —born on the Gulf Coast — and for 60 years has thrived here, helping communities through those hurricanes, freezes and floods. Rouses was ready for this emergency.
The company has always prided itself on being local, and when you’re up against the big chains, it’s hard to hold your own. But when you’re up against a remorseless global pandemic, being local is suddenly an advantage. Rouses team members from CEO to shelf stocker knew what a rush looked like and how to handle getting slammed. And when supplies dwindled, the local supermarket knew where to go to get more.
THE LOCAL FISHERMAN
“As a local company, we are always very conscious of local businesses, and we’ve always supported them,” says Denise Englade, the director of seafood for Rouses Markets. “I’m not sure customers are always aware of how different we are from, say, Walmart or Winn-Dixie or Fresh Market — any of those companies whose corporate headquarters are elsewhere. What they bring in is always really price-driven and not driven locally. Rouses is always ‘local helping locals,’ and we feel that way very strongly in seafood.”
When restaurants were ordered closed as part of the shelter-in-place and social distancing measures, Englade got nervous: “We knew immediately that some of the little guys were going to suffer.” Restaurants, she explains, are a big part of the local seafood industry, and those local companies needed to have a place to move their fresh catch. “They’re out in their boats fishing for snapper and assuming that restaurants will be there to buy it. Without restaurants, what would they do? So that was the first time, for us, that we decided to step up. Product was being fished, and we needed to do something.”
Englade started calling the local fishermen that Rouses does business with. “I just asked, ‘How are you? What’s going on? What can we do to help?’” she says. “They told us their situation, that their fishermen were basically out of work and being let go, and we were like, ‘Nope — put them back to work. Whatever they catch, we will buy.’”
And they have. Rouses partners with local seafood companies in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama, buying fresh shrimp, oysters, catfish, tuna, snapper and swordfish — among other things. Since the start of the quarantine, supporting local seafood companies has brought all sorts of specials to customers, on items that range from crabs to crawfish. “Right now we have upward of 11 different vendors, which are all small businesses that are either farm-raising or wild-catching crawfish, and we’re purchasing products from them and selling a lot, both boiled at the store and live in bags.”
It’s a long-term endeavor, she says. “Buying these products, supporting these guys…we know that, together, when this is all over, everybody can still be in business, and we can continue to have the best prices anywhere.”
THE LOCAL FARMER
“This company was founded by Anthony Rouse as a produce company,” says Robert Ybarra, the director of produce for Rouses Markets. “Produce has always been near and dear to us, and we have established lifelong relationships with local growers in all parts of Louisiana, and in some parts of Alabama and Mississippi. This company was founded with locals first and, as Donny Rouse, our CEO, likes to say, ‘Either you are local or you are not.’ We stay true to that and buy as much local as possible.”
As the virus started spreading in the U.S., people began buying food differently, says Ybarra. The demand for comfort foods — things like potatoes, onions, mushrooms and carrots — skyrocketed. “For example,” he says, “there was always a fixed amount of potatoes that we would sell. The numbers really wouldn’t jump up, and they really wouldn’t jump down. It was pretty solid. But man, we haven’t caught up yet with the sales of potatoes since this thing started on March 13. People are worried about their families, and potatoes go a long way toward feeding the family.”
The family meal, he says, has taken on a new significance.
Like most other industries, local farmers have also been affected by the pandemic, and Rouses has been working with them to help get through the tough times. “We have some special key growers with such products as white asparagus, artichokes, radicchio, some mushrooms — the stuff they sell to five-star restaurants. They’re not selling that anymore,” Ybarra says. “And so those are folks we’re working with to find an avenue for their product. And we try to help as many local farmers as we can. We have 64 stores, and we buy as much as we can.” He says that being an independent, local company gives Rouses a competitive advantage. “We can find those niche items that were just going to restaurants out there.”
Local produce, he says, is just better. “There’s that old saying that, when you have a meal that tastes good, it means someone cooked it with love. It’s the same way with local produce because farmers have a real, genuine love for their crops, their product, their seeds. I’ve seen it firsthand, you know, from visiting them. They have a passion for their product, making sure it tastes good, looks good, is safe. And love is their secret.”
Rouses is buying a lot of produce that would otherwise have gone to schools and restaurants, which means the virus should not affect any availability to store customers. As for the safety of that produce, Ybarra says that he has been asked about that quite a bit in the last few weeks. “No, you’re not going to get coronavirus from produce,” he says. “Scientific tests have confirmed the safety of fruit and vegetables.” He does recommend that everyone — whether there is a pandemic or not — always take the time to wash their produce. “There are a lot of videos out there on YouTube on how to properly wash your produce. It goes back to the basics and, for me personally, I just do it the old-fashioned way: a bowl filled with tap water. Make sure that the produce gets drenched and that you clean carefully. I’ve been 41 years in this business, and that’s always worked.”