The Essential Issue

Our Supermarket Superheroes


It has been a hundred years since the world faced anything like the coronavirus and, for many of us, life during this pandemic has been about comfort and boredom. We’re tired of Netflix, we want haircuts. This mask fogs up my glasses, and I’m tired of washing my hands. For the essential workers of Rouses Markets, however, this is more than an inconvenience or a once-a-century news story; it’s something they are living. They are on the front lines of this thing, greeting shoppers, scrubbing and stocking shelves, disinfecting carts and scanning items. They are keeping our towns going and our families fed. For all of us, they are true supermarket superheroes.

“We couldn’t be more proud of our team,” says Lee Veillon, the director of human resources for Rouses. “In a time of chaos, our team members have come together to help each other and to take care of the community. They are on the front lines every day, and we are very appreciative and thankful for them.”

As the pandemic spread across the United States, Rouses had to keep close tabs on its progress and plan for the worst. They did this not only for their customers, who they knew would want to stock up on food and supplies, but also for their employees. With nearly 7,000 team members working at 64 locations, Rouses Markets is one of the largest employers on the Gulf Coast. Taking care of its people was a top priority of the company and, by working with other grocery stores across the country, Rouses was able to learn what other frontline workers were encountering, and find innovative ways to protect customer and employee alike.

“There was a big learning curve,” says Veillon. “Our executive team met and we brainstormed, made a list, writing down anything we could think of that would be important for protecting our workers.” Masks, he says, were hard to come by until recently. “We had tried to purchase them twice before.” But by leveraging its contacts with suppliers, the company was successful in staying ahead of the demand for hand sanitizer and disinfectants.

The company has followed guidance from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) on how best to keep everyone in every Rouses location safe. Following CDC guidance has been a lot like tracking hurricanes with the National Weather Service, Veillon says. “Every time we put a plan in place, it seems like the next day, new guidelines come down. We constantly monitor it. I’m always changing something!” Still, the stores have managed to exceed recommendations. You might have noticed the plexiglass panels separating customer and cashier that help keep them both safe.

“The CDC recommends six feet of space between people for social distancing, and because the checkout is one of the places that you would be within a six-foot radius — it’s just the way the registers are situated — we tried to figure out some sort of protective barrier,” he says. Plexiglass panels were the best solution, but the challenge then was figuring out how to implement them. Because Rouses has grown over the years — built stores differently and acquired others that were already set up a certain way — there were no one-size-fits-all solutions. Until they looked up.

“The stores are all set up a little bit differently,” says Veillon, “but one thing that is consistent is that they all have ceiling tiles, and that’s where the idea came for stringing cables from the ceiling grid. It looks clean, it’s different, and it allowed us to make it work across the board regardless of the style of register.”

Taking care of customers and the heroes working the front lines has been about more than disinfecting the credit card scanners after every transaction. For months now, Rouses has provided a daily lunch for all team members at no cost. All employees were given an additional paid holiday for Easter so that they could spend time with their families. The company has even rolled out a program through a partnership with Ochsner Health, the largest nonprofit healthcare system in Louisiana, through which employees can get telemedicine and therapy visits. All team members also got a “Thank You” bonus check in April.

It is a bonus that is well-deserved, says Robert Ybarra, the director of produce for Rouses Markets. “I’ve been in the grocery business since 1981, and I know that the typical grocery worker is a first responder — and has always been a first responder — in everything from storms to this,” he says. “We’ve always been out there on the front lines meeting customers, taking care of customers, servicing customers. People don’t really think of a grocery store worker as a frontline type of person, like a fireman or a policeman, but I’ll tell you what: I have gained so much respect for the grocery employees out there each and every day.”

He adds, “I can’t tell you how proud I am of the Rouses team members, just stepping up, being there every day, going to work every day, and being friendly the Rouses way. It gives me goose bumps to be a teammate to the brave Rouses folks out there and all over our great company, all 64 stores. I mean, just a bunch of heroes.”

When the pandemic arrived, that heroism is one reason why Rouses became the center of the community. “It is a responsibility that we take on every time a hurricane comes to one of our markets,” says Donny Rouse, the company’s chief executive officer. “We always want to be there to provide for our customers. As independent grocers, we can react more quickly than national chains because we are part of our communities. We know what our communities need because we are there. And our team members enjoy serving the community. They’re excited to be out there, servicing our customers, making sure that they can continue getting fresh foods in these times.”

It has been a long shelter-in-place, and we are not out of this thing yet. But it’s reassuring to know that some real-life superheroes are here to keep us safe.

“So many of our customers have gone out of their way to say ‘Thank you’ to our amazing team at Rouses, who have been doing what they always do: serving our community with a smile, says Ali Rouse Royster. “We cannot express enough how much these kind words mean to us. You might not see our smiles behind our masks right now, but know that they’re always there!”