Brandon Waloff, 41, making a pickup for Instacart. (Photo/Courtesy Waloff)
Brandon Waloff, 41, making a pickup for Instacart. (Photo/Courtesy Waloff)

Meet the local Jews keeping you fed (and the world from falling apart)

With local shelter-in-place orders extended to the end of the month and nonessential businesses remaining closed, grocery stores continue to hold a unique role in this new world: Not only are they keeping society fed, but they’re also one of the few places to get some sort of social interaction.

But the people who keep these sites stocked, sanitized and not looking like an apocalyptic movie are facing a possibly dangerous workplace and a tense environment.

In interviews with a handful of Bay Area Jews who work at supermarkets or grocery delivery services, J. heard about a multitude of experiences — from dealing with stressed-out customers to convincing their families of the necessity of their work to receiving gratitude from community members.

Ellie Grintsaig, 18, told J. she was hesitant to return to her job at a Safeway in Alamo, where she’d worked occasionally last summer and over winter break. But as a UC Santa Cruz freshman who returned to her family’s Danville home when classes shifted online, she decided the pros outweigh the cons: She’d earn some money, keep her mind busy and join her boyfriend (who also works there).

Grintsaig said her parents initially were a little worried, but she assured  them she’d try to stay as safe as possible. As it turned out, the most pushback has come from her grandparents.

“I’ve gotten some worried voicemails,” Grintsaig said. “I mean, they’re Jewish Russian grandparents.”

Grintsaig, who mostly works in the self-checkout area, said that one of the hardest parts of the job is how hectic the store gets.

Ellie Grintsaig, 18, works at a Safeway grocery store in Alamo. (Photo/Courtesy Grinstaig)
Ellie Grintsaig, 18, works at a Safeway grocery store in Alamo. (Photo/Courtesy Grinstaig)

“I was thinking back to when I was working during winter break,” she said. “It was busy. But now it’s busy in a different way. We’ve had [checkout] lines go through the entire [food] aisle. It’s packed constantly.”

Overseeing the self-checkout line, where customers sometimes are confused, or run into problems scanning or weighing their items, Grintsaig said she has to get close to people — often.

“It’s hard to keep the 6-feet rule when you’re trying to help someone,” she said. “I’ve gotten people yelling at me when I slowly approached them.”

Despite those types of encounters, there definitely have been moments of appreciation. For example, recently there was a parade of 10 cars outside of the store with families holding signs that read, “Thank you for working!”

“I think, for the most part, people know we are all in this together,” she said.

Grintsaig said Safeway management didn’t make her wear a mask at first, but now it’s a requirement. The store also has implemented several safety features, such as plastic barriers to protect cashiers and one-way aisles to limit close encounters among customers.

Around the country, grocery workers have been heavily affected by the coronavirus pandemic; a mid-April tally by the Washington Post put the number of deaths from the virus within the supermarket industry at 41. And the Safeway distribution center in Tracy (which delivers to Grintsaig’s store) had more than 50 positive cases and one death at one point, according to an April 19 report in the San Francisco Chronicle.

Grintsaig said she doesn’t know of any employees at her store who had tested positive for Covid-19 as of this week.

Meanwhile, another college student, Shayna Dollinger, started working at Andy’s Local Market in San Rafael after returning home from a study abroad trip in March.

Shayna Dollinger, 20, works at Andy’s Local Market in San Rafael. (Photo/Courtesy Dollinger)
Shayna Dollinger, 20, works at Andy’s Local Market in San Rafael. (Photo/Courtesy Dollinger)

It’s her first time working at a grocery store, and for that experience to come during a pandemic “has been super weird,” said Dollinger, a sophomore at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut.

Dollinger, 20, said she wanted to work because she thought it would help her during the stay-at-home era.

“When things turn the way I don’t want them to, my coping mechanism is: What can I do to make this a good situation?” she said. “I came up with two things: repainting my room and working in a grocery store.”

Dollinger said, for the most part, her experiences at the store have been pretty positive, which she partly attributed to the fact that Andy’s market is smaller and more secluded than most.

“We haven’t had too much drama,” Dollinger said. “But a lot of people are buying alcohol and come in drunk.”

She also said people are buying strange amounts of items. Once someone bought $50 worth of butter, and another person bought $25 worth of bananas, she said.

Dollinger said she’s been nervous about infecting her parents, who are both in their mid-50s, but she wanted to follow in the footsteps of the rest of her family, who are “really contributing in whatever way they can” during the pandemic. For example, Dollinger’s mother, Marci, has been shopping for the elderly for S.F.-based Jewish Family and Children’s Services.

“It’s more important to get out of the house and contribute in some way,” said Dollinger. “That was more important for me than the risk.”

Safety is also a factor for Brandon Waloff, 41, who began working for Instacart, a grocery delivery service, after driving for Uber and Lyft during the pandemic went belly up.

The Oakland resident said he shops at several grocery stores in San Francisco and then delivers the items to customers. He said he enjoys several aspects of the work (such as being able to listen to music while shopping) and that being busy helps his days go by quicker.

But he also acknowledged it’s not the safest line of work right now.

“I understand [a market is] a dangerous place to be,” he said. “Hospitals and grocery stores have to be the most risky places to be working in. There were a couple moments where I woke up in the middle of the night and had a lot more anxiety about it. What if I get sick?”

The pay from Instacart isn’t as good as what Waloff said he earned driving for Uber: close to $30 an hour. Now he’s getting closer to $22 an hour, he said.

Luckily, Waloff said, a big majority of his customers have been “super grateful,” offering him cash tips — and even snippets of conversation.

“I’ve found people have been appreciative and thankful,” Waloff said. “I feel like I’m doing a good service.”

And while he doesn’t know what the future holds for him in terms of employment, he said he’s certain of one thing: “With Uber, I was on my butt all day. I like being on my feet.”

Gabriel Greschler

Gabriel Greschler was a staff writer at J. from 2019 to 2021.