By Breanne Massey
Special to the Pioneer
The definition of running a family business is all-inclusive for some representatives of the Columbia Valley community.
AG Valley Foods owner Sydney-Anne Porter may run a family business with her immediate family members, but she views the team of staff working for her at the independently-owned grocery store as family too.
“I feel like a mom to my staff and these (staff) are my kids,” explained Porter, while describing the safety measures that are now being enforced to mitigate the risks of COVID-19 at the independently-owned grocery store in the heart of Invermere. “I want to keep all of our staff and customers safe.”
Porter purchased the centrally located supermarket in 1998 with the goal of offering the cleanest and friendliest option for locals to buy their groceries.
Her sons, Eric and Greg Lapointe, joined the family business in the spring of 2006.
While the family business is no stranger to continuous improvements at the storefront, the COVID-19 pandemic radically altered the way business is being done at AG Valley Foods in short order.
“We’ve been pretty strict from the beginning,” Porter replied about the way the daily operations at AG Valley Foods are evolving in light of current events, “as soon as we could get some policies in place.
“Initially, we only let one person per household in. Now, we have a full-time greeter and have relaxed that a little bit. We also have a full-time person going around sanitizing every handle and every surface in the store, and those are two jobs we never had before.”
Overall, the support for the valley-based business has largely been positive, although there are occasionally some difficult customers who protest and refuse to follow the recently implemented safety measures upon entering the store.
“The majority of our customers have been really receptive and really appreciative about the steps we’ve been taking to keep the community safe,” she explained, while indicating some members of the community have phoned in to personally thank her for being the change that helps shoppers feel safe.
But approximately twice a week, the greeter at the door who reminds shoppers to clean their hands before entering the store and keeps count of the number of patrons on any given day to ensure that no more than 30 people visit at the same time, is confronted by individuals who refuse to use the hand-sanitizing station.
“We’ve turned people away for not sanitizing their hands at the door,” Porter said, noting their patron’s business is appreciated, but the safety of the community is her number one priority.
AG Valley Foods has implemented directional tape to encourage social distancing among its shoppers, and has installed plexiglass in front of the cashiers when the materials became available.
“It took us a while to access some (plexiglass) because, all of a sudden, the whole country wanted some,” Porter explained. “We bought it from our local Invermere glass shop and we couldn’t get anybody to do the cutting, so my sons finally did it.
“We got new counters put in last year, so we didn’t want to do it all willy nilly, and I think it definitely helps the cashiers feel safe.”
In addition, a decision was made to order plastic bags into AG Valley Foods after some of the cashiers voiced their concerns about dealing with potential germs on reusable bags at the check-out counters.
“People talk about nurses and doctors, but the cashiers are vulnerable too,” she said, adding the team seems “grateful” for the support.
But one of the biggest challenges for the community-based grocer has been to keep frontline staff cared for during the ongoing pandemic due to issues ranging from immunocompromised health risks, fear of the COVID-19 pandemic or simply resigning to self-isolate with their families.
When asked what keeps her awake at night, Porter simply replied: “extra staff” but remarked how “impressed” she was by the total number of teenagers in the community who have stepped up to the challenge while school closures have been in effect.
“It’s a lot more youths than we usually have, and it’s made a big difference in our daily operations,” she said, while remarking it’s going to be an “awfully strange spring” without the iconic graduation march throughout the community for the class of 2020.
“I really like to see the grad march because you get to see kids who have worked at the store or children from the community that we’ve watched grow up over the years, and it’s such a special community event,” she said.
But the next best thing, she added, was being able to see her grandchildren in-person for the first time after weeks of social distancing on Mother’s Day.
“I put on a hairnet and a face mask on, and got all geared up and had a big hug from my grandchildren on Mother’s Day and it was the best gift anyone could have ever asked for,” Porter said. “I cried and cried, and I’m not a crier … We’ve been in touch with technology this whole time, even though we’re in the same community, but can you imagine what this (pandemic) would have been like without FaceTime, Facebook or Zoom?”