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Holly Baker and Brandon Kane of GreenStar.

ITHACA, NY -- After months of sustained cash loss due to the COVID-19 pandemic, GreenStar general manager Brandon Kane is feeling a bit more hopeful.

“Things are better than anticipated due to the public’s response,” he said. “Now it’s all about keeping the momentum up.”

At the beginning of December, GreenStar put out a press release detailing its financial struggles. At the time, they stated they were losing, on average, $55,000 per week for the past six months, and were forced to furlough 23 employees. The satellite stores in Collegetown and DeWitt Mall are also struggling, with sales down by 50% as students and the workforce have been largely absent; the DeWitt Mall location was closed from April until September.

However, since informing the public of the situation at the store, Kane said members and customers showed up in droves to shop in-store and through Instacart; people also bought more than $130,000 in GreenStar gift cards. Total sales went from $400,000 below 2019 in October, to $88,000 over 2019 by the end of the year.

Despite the recent jump in sales, Kane said it hasn’t been easy. The store moved into its larger location on Cascadilla Street in May — a move that came at a difficult time but has proved to be essential. Without the extra space to carry more stock (and safely allow more people), Kane isn’t sure the store would have survived. However, the new store hasn’t been able to accomplish all the plans the co-op had for it.

The dining area and children’s area is blocked off with tape, and empty metal carts normally used for the hot and cold bar sit idly inside. The deli section is closed, and the action bar is currently dormant.

“We had a whole plan and design for the store,” Kane said. “It was intended to be a community area.”

Those plans came to a screeching halt in March, complicated by the fact the store was in the midst of a move. Plastic shields went up at cashier stations, cleaning staff doubled, the bulk food section closed and masks quickly became the norm. And as the pandemic has raged on and GreenStar has struggled, Kane said it’s important to make sure the employees are taken care of to keep morale high.

“Employees were getting $2-$4 extra an hour on top of their normal hourly pay until November when we moved to a living wage,” Kane said. “That has cost us more than $500,000.”

In fact, personnel is by far the biggest cost that GreenStar has shouldered during the pandemic. Between hazard pay, living wage and more cleaning crew, it’s been expensive, Kane said.

“The grocery business is only as profitable as they are able to keep personnel costs down,” he said. “But it’s difficult to do that when you’re taking care of your employees.”

The store did receive a PPP loan in the first round of CARES Act relief, but Kane said they aren’t eligible for the second round as of right now. Currently, the qualifier is that the store must be bringing in 25% less revenue. Kane said because of the bigger store, they aren’t bringing in 25% less revenue, but are definitely bringing in more than 25% less profit. However, he said there is still a chance that eligibility rule could change.

As vaccine rollout continues, Kane said he’s hopeful that things will be approaching a more stable place by summertime and sections of the store will be able to start opening up over the next few months.

“We’re hoping by June there will be a critical mass of vaccines, plus better weather, an increase in tourism, and students returning at the end of the summer,” he said. “We could see some return to normal, revenue will increase, and we can open the hot and cold bar.”

Despite a tumultuous 2020, Kane is feeling better about the future.

“I have no doubt GreenStar can operate successfully,” he said. “The public turnout has been phenomenal. We’re very hopeful.”

You can support GreenStar by shopping there in person or via Instacart for curbside pick-up or delivery.

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