Cover photo: Former Blue Moose employee Gabrielle Boone works in the bakery at Sun Fresh. Photo by Jill Draper
Sun Fresh hires laid-off servers, bartenders at Red Bridge Shopping Center
By Jill Draper
The mood was somber when some 15 workers from Blue Moose, Barrio, Caleb’s, Jack Stack and other local restaurants gathered in an upstairs office at the Red Bridge Shopping Center’s Sun Fresh grocery store. Most were servers, bartenders or kitchen staff living paycheck to paycheck. And since all city restaurants had been ordered to shut down their dine-in services, there were no more checks.
Other circumstances intervened, as well. One man’s sister died last week and one woman’s car stopped running, while another’s car was stolen. New to town and expecting her first child in June, she shook her head wryly. “Great timing, huh?”
But the mood shifted by the meeting’s end. Store director Kathy Scott announced that sales had spiked and she could use extra help, especially from people already familiar with the service industry. Within a few hours she had placed all the workers in positions at Sun Fresh or other Balls Foods grocery stores.
Scott said she searched online for the stores closest to the workers’ addresses, so some of them can even walk to their new jobs. She acted quickly “so they could sleep better that night knowing they had a place to go.”
The new workers are even encouraged to wear shirts with their restaurant logos. Customers might see an ex-server from Blue Moose in the bakery, or an ex-bartender from Barrio stocking shelves.
The idea came about after a brainstorming session with Elise Valenti, director of marketing and communications at Lane 4 Property Group, which manages the Red Bridge Shopping Center.
“It felt good to be able to do something to help the community,” Scott said. “We’re short-staffed and need to pace ourselves and keep our immune system strong, so offering temporary work to displaced employees also helps our regular staff.”
She told the restaurant workers who gathered in her office, “You’re our neighbors. You’re basically on furlough. We’ll help you get some cash in your pockets right now.”
The new workers are being paid $12 per hour at the end of each day. If they earn more than $600, Sun Fresh will consider adding them to the store’s payroll. “We’ll keep it free-flowing and take it day by day,” Scott said. “You can go back to your own businesses as soon as the doors open.”
There have been some good things to come about from the current situation, she said. Some people previously looked at Sun Fresh as a convenience store, and now they realize they can do all their shopping there.
She also said the required shut-down of the store’s salad bar and eat-in area was perfect timing, since the store already was planning to renovate those areas. A new salad bar is being built closer to the produce section, and a wall by the deli section will be taken down to open up the space. Meanwhile, walls have been painted, new produce tables have been ordered and the liquor aisles are scheduled for a makeover.
“We’re doing a really big push right now,” said Scott, who added that customers have been wonderful to work with, despite a few bare spots on the shelves caused by irregular truck deliveries of food and other goods.
“I remember the first time a customer thanked me for my service. I looked around, thinking there was a military person nearby. But we’re making a sacrifice to be here—we’re exposed every day,” she said. “As time goes on, I think this is going to get more intense.”