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Customers line up to get into the H-E-B on Wooded Acres before the store opened at 8 a.m. Monday.

Shelves at local H-E-B grocery stores have taken a beating as customers rush to stock up on toilet paper, hand sanitizer, cleaning supplies, meat and scads of other products. They are spurred by concerns over COVID-19 and the lack of access to public dining rooms, closed in response to government mandates that restaurants offer only to-go and delivery options.

Observers historically have marveled at local shoppers and how they flock to area grocery stores on the slightest hint of inclement weather. Response to the coronavirus has one-upped that habit, prompting Waco’s dominant grocer to practically plead with shoppers not to accelerate their buying habits.

Acknowledging its employees have been toiling beyond the call of duty, H-E-B has announced all hourly staffers working in stores, warehouse, manufacturing facilities and in transportation will receive an extra $2 per hour through April 12 “to recognize their hard work and thank them for their commitment as they help serve our customers and community.”

Walmart has announced cash bonuses of $150 for part-time hourly workers and $300 for full-time hourly workers, in addition to accelerating payout of regular performance-based bonuses as if targets had been met.

McLennan County Judge Scott Felton mentioned during county consideration of emergency measures that an H-E-B regional supervisor told him the Texas-based chain is weeks away from adequately restocking its stores in the wake of the customer onslaught, if the situation immediately were resolved.

Both H-E-B and Walmart have limited store hours and authorized buying limits on many items. H-E-B also announced Friday it has started a limited phone-based delivery service with Favor Delivery specifically for seniors, who are more susceptible to severe illness if infected with the new coronavirus.

Both chains have announced they are hiring to aid their response to the crisis. In a recent H-E-B update, it said it has stopped accepting applications for temporary positions because of “overwhelming demand” but urged those interested to check back regularly because “our needs change daily.”

H-E-B and Walmart are giants in the industry. H-E-B, a regional grocer compared to Walmart’s national retail power, operates 400 stores in the United States and Mexico, employing 120,000 and enjoying $28 billion in annual sales.

But even much smaller grocery stores are feeling the pinch.

Jubilee Food Market, 15th Street and Colcord Avenue, a venue opened by Mission Waco to address a food desert in that North Waco community, has experienced unprecedented sales totals, founder Jimmy Dorrell said.

“This past weekend, the Jubilee Food Market was packed with neighborhood customers, mostly rushing to stock up for the ‘national emergency’ caused by the coronavirus pandemic,” he wrote in a newsletter Monday. “Bottled water, toilet paper and basic foods flew off the shelves, leaving large empty spaces. Our small grocery store sold almost $5,000 of groceries each day, Friday, Saturday and Sunday. Several items were restocked today with milk, eggs, gallon water containers, chips and, of course, Blue Bell ice cream.”

Since that newsletter came out, Jubilee has seen its supply of merchandise continue to dwindle, though a delivery by truck Thursday provided relief.

Chick-fil-A

Local Chick-fil-A franchisee Jake Roye has had plenty on his plate.

Not only is he deep into adding additional drive-thru lanes to his Franklin Avenue location, adjacent to Walmart, he is dealing with a coronavirus situation involving an employee at his Chick-fil-A in Richland Mall. The Waco-McLennan County Public Health District released a statement essentially giving the eatery itself a clean bill of health, saying the staffer did not have “customer exposure” and had not been at the facility in the days prior to being tested. Still, Roye gave the place a thorough cleaning. Mall marketing spokesperson Brad King said he still listed the restaurant as closed, and he had not heard otherwise by Friday afternoon.

Chick-fil-A and other food spots in the mall are prohibited by emergency edict from serving sit-down meals, but may fill orders to go.

Unfortunately, the Tribune-Herald has not been able to reach Roye for comment. David Sykora, who owns the Chick-fil-A at Seventh Street and I-35 downtown, said he has noticed a slackening of business, but blamed it primarily on continued interstate construction through Waco. As customers and observers probably know, Sykora’s Chick-fil-A has implemented an efficient multi-lane drive-thru procedure that is a sight to behold.

While bars, restaurants, gyms and theaters are under specific restrictions, self-imposed precautions vary for retailers and other local entities, Waco’s Richland Mall demonstrates a mixed bag of responses as operations of just about every stripe are at least adapting in the public health emergency.

Business properties

Hard to believe, but there is business news beyond the coronavirus.

Two high-profiles properties have hit the market, including the building at 210-212 S. Fifth St. that is home to Interior Glow and Brazos River Supply Co. Priced at $1.3 million, it features “a great location between River Square” and Magnolia Market at the Silos, according to promotional information provided by Coldwell Banker Commercial’s Gregg Glime and Bland Cromwell. The first floor is remodeled and ready for occupancy.

Meanwhile, the former Big Red Bottling building at 720 Jewell Drive has been made available by Coldwell Banker Commercial for $3.85 per square foot annually. The 31,500-square-foot building sits on a 2-acre tract.

Also, real estate agent Robert McCollum, who lists properties in Waco and Dallas, recently brokered the sale of a 10-plus-acre tract on South New Road, near the KXXV-TV studio, Flying J travel center and the entertainment center proposed by Houston-based NewQuest Properties to include a multi-screen theater and Topgolf venue.

The buyer, Robert Horton, of Fort Worth, proposes to build a mini-storage complex and make pad sites available to others interested in developing the acreage, McCollum said. NewQuest’s package and construction of several new apartment complexes in the area spurred interest in the land.

Drive-thru pawn

Longtime Waco roofing mogul Billy Johnson said Friday he is planning to install a drive-thru window in his Rodeo Pawn on Robinson Drive, about a mile south of Waco’s traffic circle. The feature should prove “safer and more convenient,” considering the coronavirus pandemic, Johnson said.

He said he is taking a proactive stance in light of government demands that restaurants only fill orders to-go to protect patrons.

Johnson said firearms and ammunition have become a hot commodity at Rodeo Pawn, with industry sources telling him sales nationally are eclipsing those in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks that claimed almost 3,000 lives.

Alex Sill, who answered the phone in the firearms department at Cabela’s in Central Texas Marketplace, said the outdoors retailer also is seeing a surge in gun and ammunition purchases, experiencing shortages and even depletion in some categories because of atypical demand the first month of spring.

Small business help

Small business owners may see more help from the Small Business Administration.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott announced Friday the U.S. Small Business Administration has included the entire state in its Economy Injury Disaster Declaration, which grants access to its Economic Injury Disaster Loan program. It produces long-term, low-interest loans to businesses that qualify.

“Small businesses are the foundation of our state’s economy and they need all the help they can get as the ripple effects of COVID-19 impact their everyday operations,” Abbott wrote in a press release.

For more information, visit www.sba.gov/disaster.


Photos: The latest images from the coronavirus outbreak in the U.S., around the world

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