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Food stores begin to restock shelves

Snowstorm or not, Patty Unger’s pregnant daughter woke up Wednesday morning wanting salt and vinegar potato chips. So the Hamburg resident zipped a snowsuit over her pajamas and trudged across a snowmobile path to a Tops grocery store about two blocks away on McKinley Parkway.

When she got there, she found the store empty of employees except for two department managers who had been running the store by themselves for more than 24 hours – neither of whom knew much about operating cash registers and didn’t know how to process credit cards.

So, though she wasn’t scheduled to resume working there until next week, she hopped on the register and rang out customers until evening, with the managers behind her bagging groceries the entire time.

“The line stretched completely around the store,” she said. “But not one person came to the register ugly, even after waiting two hours in line. They just thanked us for being there and for being open.”

The parking lot was filled with snowmobiles and four-wheel drive trucks and the store sold out of sleds as customers on foot looked for ways to drag their purchases home.

Scenes like that one have been playing out across southern parts of Western New York since the historic snowfall buried stores and warehouses, clogging roadways and preventing trucks from delivering food and supplies.

Things are far from normal at grocery stores most affected by the storm but, as roads clear, residents dig out, and suppliers are able to make more regular deliveries, things are improving.

Tops’ Lancaster warehouse, which supplies about 60 percent of all its local stores’ needs, is back up and running. Trucks are delivering “non- stop” to all stores to get them stocked and keep them stocked as people replenish their cupboards after the storm. Third-party vendors of milk, bread and produce are also making more regular deliveries.

Tops pharmacies at stores in the Snow Belt closed intermittently, and locations with fuel stations ran out of gasoline at times. But those things are starting to return to normal, too, the company said.

“I am comfortable in saying by the end of the weekend and by the start of next week it will absolutely be business as usual with stock levels in all of our stores,” said John Persons, senior vice president of operations at Tops.

Wegmans stores are getting back up to speed, too. By Friday, two of three stores that had closed Tuesday had reopened. Those stores, in Depew and West Seneca, received food deliveries and were able to get staff members in to stock shelves and run registers. Workers were clearing snow from the McKinley Parkway store in Blasdell Friday afternoon and planned to have it open by 8 a.m. Saturday.

By the time the West Seneca store reopened Friday, customers were already waiting outside to get in but could only buy as much as they could carry, since most were traveling on foot.

Pharmacies at Wegmans stores were dealing with limited supplies after its Cheektowaga pharmaceutical distributor, McKesson Corp., was snowed in. It was filling partial prescriptions for non-essential medicines, asking customers if they minded taking just enough medicine to hold them over a few days until the store could more fully restock its inventory.

At Wegmans stores in the Northtowns, it was “business as usual,” according to Wegmans spokeswoman Michele Mehaffy. Customers were loading up carts in preparation for Thanksgiving dinner almost as if nothing had happened. Newly reopened stores were getting back to normal, too.

“Do we have pop? Yes. Do we have 24 kinds of pop? Not at every store,” Mehaffy said.

Once snowed-in shoppers finish their post-storm stock-ups this weekend, the Depew, West Seneca and Blasdell stores were expected to be completely recovered, and shopping there was expected to shift to Thanksgiving preparations as well.

But grocery stores haven’t been easily accessible to everyone. Many snowed-in residents unable to make it to supermarkets walked instead to corner stores to get supplies. Those stores have been running out of necessities, snacks and gasoline, but shipments are beginning to come through and replenish some items.

With 7-Eleven’s shelves emptied of basics, clerk Julia Stachewicz cut to the chase when fielding calls.

“I’m answering the phone, ‘No milk, no bread, no eggs.’ And it’s successful, because this lady said, ‘Thanks very much.’ That’s basically what they’re asking for,” Stachewicz said.

Co-worker Sam Rugg said customers kept wanting to know if delivery trucks had come. They couldn’t under the driving ban and there just wasn’t enough of what they wanted.

With groceries in short supply, Michael Woods walked from his home on Sheffield Street to a small market on Clinton Street, taking him an hour and a half round-trip, he said, to get food for the family.

“They’re the only place that has white bread and milk,” he said.

But things are moving forward, and recovery is expected to speed up now that the snow has stopped and removal efforts are progressing.

“Buffalonians are a hardy bunch and they wear it like a badge of courage making it through times like these,” Persons said.

email: schristmann@buffnews.com News staff reporter Mark Sommer contributed to this report.