Rancho Markets adapting during the coronavirus

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Manuel Garcia starts his shift cleaning grocery carts for customers as Rancho Markets implements numerous safety precautions at their stores to navigate the coronavirus pandemic as people shop at the 140 N. 900 West location in Salt Lake City on Friday, August 14, 2020.

The first days of the quarantine were tough at Rancho Markets. The shelves emptied fast, and the storage didn’t last long.

When a truck carrying rice arrived at one of the Salt Lake City stores, frustrated and desperate customers pounced, grabbing more bags than they could carry.

“It was extremely stressful to see people’s reactions. It was truly apocalyptic,” said Eli Madrigal, CEO and president of the Utah grocery chain that caters to the growing Hispanic population across the Wasatch Front.

Six months later, the markets are recovering — and adapting — to a new reality in which shipments take longer than expected and sanitizing wipes became one of the hottest staples.

Every 30 minutes, employees in the nine stores located in Salt Lake City, Ogden, and Provo rigorously sanitize every department, shopping carts, baskets, and the plexiglass that separates cashiers from customers. Self-served baked goods are temporarily restricted and prepared foods from the on-site restaurant Nuestra Cocina are available only for takeout.

Everybody must wear a mask to be able to get in, even in the counties in which the mandate is not enforced. If a customer doesn’t have one, it’s provided for free.

This duty is especially important because Rancho Markets’ target customers are one of the demographics hardest hit by COVID-19 in Utah. Hispanics represent only 14% of the state’s population yet, 37% of COVID cases are from this ethnicity.

Employees at the supermarket are no exception. One of the challenges is their contact with COVID-19, Madrigal said.

Fewer than 10% of the 490 people who work in all stores have been infected or exposed to the virus, which has forced the management to quarantine full departments to avoid its spread.

Rancho Markets still offers those items that attract loyal customers. An array of green from kale and aloe vera leaves; orange from carrots; and pink from radishes decorate large shelves of produce.

Small piñatas still hang over the limes to keep celebrations alive in gloomy times. And unique meat cuts, such as cow feet, tail or tongue, are displayed in the butcher section with tags in both English and Spanish.

“We specialize in having those products that are weird for many but basic for our people,” Madrigal said. “We also work directly with farmers so we can give fresh meats and vegetables at the most affordable price.”

To keep up with the 2020 pace and keep the supermarket shelves full, Madrigal has to plan ahead. Freights with basic products that were supposed to arrive at stores within 15 days, now take three to four months. While the stores wait for a shipment with expensive sanitizing wipes, they improvise with other disposable products.

In Utah, the increase in demand for groceries was one of the largest in the country, according to Dave Davis, president of the Utah Food Industry Association.

“It threw off everyone’s projections, from the retailer, to the processor, to the grower of the product,” he said. “Everyone had to ramp up their systems."

The supply chain has caught up, but some challenges persist in items such as aluminum cans, cleaning supplies and antibacterial wipes.

“But,” Davis added, “there’s never been a time in this pandemic in which shortages have endangered people’s ability to get food.”

Everything is falling into place, just the way it has during Madrigal’s whole career.

Originally from Mexicali, Mexico, the 48-year-old found her passion for the grocery industry since she started working in a supermarket in California when she was 15.

At 22, she was already in charge of a branch grocery store and worked her way up in a man’s world to oversee a chain of four supermarkets in Las Vegas.

“That’s when my passion to start to build something for myself and being an entrepreneur grew,” Madrigal said. " I started working on the idea and took the decision to launch my own adventure in 2006.”

She started with a 4,300-square-foot store in Salt Lake City. “It was tiny, but for me, it was a lot.”

Rolling up her sleeves and doing the hard work weren’t an issue back then — nor today.

Madrigal starts her day at 4 a.m to order, keep track or receive the stores’ produce. At the same time, her office is filled with new ideas to adapt to the market. Her next challenge is to produce a digital platform to fill online orders.

Around 14 years ago, Madrigal moved to Utah because of spiritual reasons, and that has been the foundation of every step she takes.

“I’m a believer,” she said, “and I’m sure God brought me here with a goal.”