Butler County ‘essential businesses’ still must adapt in changing times: How they’re doing it

Ohio shut down non-essential businesses Tuesday to help combat the coronavirus pandemic, but those that are essential to daily life and allowed to remain open continue to face challenges.

Gary Couch, owner of longtime business Al Couch's Market in St. Clair Twp., said the family-owned grocery store is keeping up with demand by asking its 14 employees to work a few extra hours per shift. It also is relying on relatives who "kick it up a notch" and come in from out of state to help when there's an emergency.

“The ones who are employed in different sectors of life, we’re always in contact, so … once the family sees what’s going on, they just seem to migrate back here to help,” Couch said. “When my family gets involved, that throws another 10 people into it, (easily).”

The store, which has roots that stretch back to Hamilton in 1936, opened its St. Clair Twp. location in 1949. Couch, 68, has been working there since he was assigned to sort pop bottles when he was 11 years old.

MORE: Coronavirus stay-at-home order: What businesses are considered essential?

Smaller stores such as his can react more quickly when customers drain a supply of a specific product and typically have a strong grasp of what their customers are seeking, he said.

“We don’t have to do it in such large numbers, we can do it in a way that actually defines what our customers wants,” he said.

Smaller stores also can be more nimble and have employees multitask, switching from working the cash register to stocking shelves or unloading trucks.

“They’re constantly moving from position to position,” he said. “We’re not as focused on just one area. We’re constantly moving where we need the help.”

He said the store has been there for the local community when calamity strikes, including floods and hurricanes, but “every time we’ve been through some kind of crisis like this, we have a tremendous amount of customers who are loyal to us and we seem to draw people from the outside.

The Almond Sisters Bakery in Hamilton was still active Tuesday morning as its three employees — co-owner Jenni Hubbard, her husband, Scott, and her sister, Stephanie Kyoto — worked to ensure a display case was filed with two dozen kinds of desserts and three different breads.

MORE: Longtime Butler County hamburger spot reopens just weeks before adapting to coronavirus slowdown

“We are keeping things stocked because we have faith in the community and we’re putting that faith in because it’s our livelihood,” Hubbard said. “It’s just the three of us.”

The High Street storefront is a reminder of the changing times. Three blue squares on the floor mark off where customers should stand for social distancing while in line. T-shirts by Hamilton's Unsung Salvage & Design and emblazoned with messages like "Remember to Wash Your Hands" and "Don't Mind Me: I'm Social Distancing" are for sale at the front of the store.

Starting today, hours for the business are 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. Tuesday to Friday, three hours fewer than usual. Saturday hours of 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. remain in place, but, for the time being, the store will not open on Sundays.

Foot traffic at Almond Sisters Bakery is down by about 75 percent in the past week or so, Hubbard said, but she credits city officials for putting up orange traffic cones outside Hamilton businesses to help residents quickly stop by to order food and get home.

“That’s helped tremendously,” she said. “That’s why we’re seeing foot traffic.”

MORE: ‘We’re nervous, obviously’: Butler County restaurant, bar owners work to endure shutdown

Middletown business Denny Lumber Co., which has been around since 1859, is still supplying necessary items to the local commercial companies also considered essential businesses.

Cleaning adequately is not an issue for the business, nor is employees washing hands between each transaction, according to co-owner Bob McMullen.

“You just got to remember not to touch your face in between,” he said.

Social distancing, however, is a challenge.

“We’re not used to standing that far away from people, y’know?” McMullen said. “We’re more used to a more personal interaction with our customers and people, so it’s a little bit harder if somebody wants to see something that’s in a case.”

That involves a customer pointing to a product in a case and a staffer asking them to step back before it can be taken out for them to look at it and decide, McMullen said.

“You can’t stand there face to face with them,” he said. “It’s just harder to give the level of service that you’re used to giving people.”

MORE: How a Middletown lumber company has stayed in business for 160 years

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