Our Pandemic Economy:Nine Businesses on Barre-Montpelier Road 

 

Reporting by Sam Clark, Ben Bourgeois, Evie Moore, Tagg Schrader, Amy Felice, Ava Fitzgerald, Ollie Hansen, Wylder Gluck, Luke Page and Charlie Haynes.  

 

Photos by Kiki Hayward, Sean Butler, Julia Fortin, Ivy Heinz, Alexei Duplessis, Blakelee Hoffman, Abigail DeRosia, and Lexi Blanchard

 

Special thanks to Krista Dy, U-32’s photography teacher, for her generous collaboration.

 

Contents: 

 

Teacher’s Introduction

 

Fecteau Homes 

 

Dollar General 

 

Napa Sanel Auto Parts

 

Quilter’s Garden 

 

AAA

 

One Stop Country Pet Supply

 

Dunkin 

 

Montpelier Volkswagen

 

Sears Hometown Store

 

Teacher’s Introduction, by Ben Heintz

 

On May 19, ten student journalists and nine photographers from U-32 took a reporting trip to Barre Montpelier Road. The students had arranged interviews with local businesses to learn about their experiences during the pandemic.  We wanted to know: What have the big headlines (supply chains, labor shortages, etc.) looked like on the ground, in our own community? 

 

The resulting interviews are diverse and complicated, but one common theme emerged: the resilience and adaptability of our local businesses. A big thank you to all of the owners, managers and employees who took time to share their stories with us.  

 

The highlight of the trip came after the students completed their interviews, when we convened at the Wayside for lunch and the restaurant’s owner, Brian Zecchinelli, generously appeared to talk with us after our meal. Zecchinelli clearly relished the opportunity to connect with the students, and the conversation was loaded with insights into one the most important economic and cultural institutions in Central Vermont.

 

One of the first points Zecchinelli made was that “this isn’t the Wayside’s first pandemic.” The Wayside opened in July, 1918 and the Spanish Influenza arrived that September. “We knew the seriousness of what a pandemic does to a business,” Zecchinelli said. “So we were all over it.  I think we emerged from the pandemic much better than other businesses because we took the time, the four months where we had to lay off all our employees and started making renovations and innovations to the Wayside, to keep it the freshest airflow in the state.”  

 

Supply chains?  Zecchinelli pointed to the floor of the restaurant and told the students about the huge, full-height basement, and how critical the storage space has been.  They’ve stocked up on yeast with 40 cases instead of the normal two.  There’s usually one pallet of flour, but when they heard about the war in Ukraine they stockpiled four pallets, “like a bunker, or like we’re preparing for a flood and we’ve got all the sandbags piled up.” They still sell a “bonus baker’s dozen” of Parker House Rolls, Zecchinelli said, with pride: 14 rolls instead of the normal baker’s dozen, 13.

 

Labor shortages? Zecchinelli said the Wayside’s secret has been to take care of their employees “as an extension of the family.” They made sure to hold everyone’s jobs for the four months the restaurant was shut down in 2020, and a lot of the upgrades, to their ventilation system, etc, have been focused on worker safety.  When we spoke with Zecchinelli they had just held a ceremony for “legacy awards,” recognizing staff members for anywhere between 5 and 45 years of service. 30 of their staff have more than 500 years at the restaurant, and Zechinelli makes sure any student who worked there in high school can always pick up hours when they’re home from college.  While some local restaurants have had to close due to staffing shortages, the Wayside has endured.

 

Zecchnelli said he was deeply grateful for all the support from the government, helping to keep restaurants afloat, and said that the “Everyone Eats” program was especially important in the darkest days of the pandemic. Even though the Wayside didn’t make money on the meals, the program kept the restaurant’s workers busy, helped local families facing food insecurity, and reminded everyone that “there’s more to working at the Wayside than a paycheck.”

 

At the close of our conversation Zecchinelli congratulated the graduating seniors. He reassured the students that while so much in their world is in turmoil, the Wayside will hold fast. He said his favorite compliment to hear from customers is also the most common: “I’ve been away for 10 years, and I come back, and this place is just the way I remember it.” 

 

“We want this to be just the way you remember it today, for years to come,” he said. “Whether you stay around, or leave for college and come back someday, the Wayside, it’s going to be here for you.”

 

Students in the journalism and photography 2 class talked with Brian Zecchinelli, the Wayside’s owner, center.

 

Fecteau Homes

 

Sam Clark

 

Photos by Kiki Hayward

 

 

Fecteau Homes is a mobile-home factory outlet on the Barre-Montpelier, located close to the rotary. Drivers passing by see rows of white mobile and modular homes, with an office in front, alongside model homes on the right. Dan Fecteau generously agreed to be interviewed for this story, and we sat in a conference room with windows that looked between the Model homes and other, new homes waiting to be shipped out. 

 

What’s been the most important impact on your business from the pandemic? 

 

Supply chains. Cost wise there’s quite a few things- supply chains, cost, and probably labor. You know, it’s as important as anything. So, yeah, they’ve all been a challenge from the beginning of [the pandemic]. Prices are substantially higher than they were. We have less and less people, you know, it’s harder to get people. So it’s been challenging all around.

 

 

Specifically, how have supply chains changed for your business?

 

Really everything. You know, appliance shortages have been the most obvious one; now you’re seeing ductwork, that’s short- wiring was higher[-priced] it was just through the roof for a while there, along with most lumbers. And then on top of it, there was something in Texas, some sort of a resin factory [and it was destroyed]. 

 

It was a huge percentage of the resin in the United States was like almost like 70% or whatever it was, was this huge factory in Texas. That added to it, so as far as coating for wires, fiberglass tub shadows impacted a lot of stuff. So that happened. Now fuel, the freight prices are through the roof. I mean, for whatever reason, I know it doesn’t matter to anybody. It’s that they know that diesel’s substantially higher and as a result rates are higher and then the flatcars are higher. So yeah, it’s huge.

 

Yeah, and then also specifically the labor market. How many times have you had turnover issues? 

 

Yeah, I mean, we always have, it’s not terrible, but there’s a higher turnover on the labor side, because, you know, it’s harder to get people to want to work out again, it’s cold, or it’s hot. And it’s, you know, it’s hard to work. So, it’s harder to get applications and get new people, it’s been challenging through this whole thing. 

 

Are most of your employees setting up homes for people?

 

Yeah, I would say well, you know, probably two thirds. Yeah, two thirds of our employees. So you know, it’s anywhere from like the, the laborers and then the more skilled carpenters. You know, as far as that’s been, that’s been a challenge. 

 

Can you describe how you felt about your expectations for the business when you heard things were shutting down? Like specifically with lock downs?

 

Yeah, I mean, it was kind of one of those things. We just had about a decade of bad housing you know, from 2008-9.  It had just been almost 10 years before I really caught back on. So we’re just coming out of that and starting to catch up. And, you know, we’ve had a few good years and it was just pretty discouraging. 

 

Yeah, it looks like we’re gonna have to shut everything down and you know, the whole country is gonna crawl into a shell and wait. But, you know, thankfully, we just were able to keep moving and, you know, it’s the bills coming their way.

 

 

In doing some research on you guys and the area, I noticed there’s, you know, a good few dealers of mobile homes like you guys. 

 

Well over the pandemic it’s been actually it’s been easier in some respects, I think for all of us, because the demand is way up. I think Vermont was like the highest percentage, influx of … out of state people. Plus the supply chain. We were fortunate, we were able to preorder a lot of homes, so we haven’t had a shortage of homes. But it’s also a big risk.

 

 So yeah, we’ve been fortunate, but I think that there’s so much demand for housing that you know, just ironically, people are coming here to escape and, from where they’re coming from, buying new existing houses is inexpensive relative to what they’re used to for pricing..

 

Yeah, so obviously, you’re shipping systems. How much of that are you guys in control of?

 

Yeah, actually, well, we use the factories that have their own carriers. And we’re kind of at the mercy of that pricing or we do a pickup which you know, we take some risk on but, we have some ability to save some money, but the pricing is dramatically higher now. It’s a lot more, what happens is these things, you know, the fuel goes up and the prices go up, and then they never, they never quite come back down. They’ve been not increasing their prices. Because they were competing now. 

 

They’re all finally getting caught up on the drivers. They have to pay more for the drivers because they have a hard time getting people. They’re, you know, going around picking from them and all of a sudden labor costs go up, everything goes up. You know, insurance is gonna go up, it’s all going higher and higher.

 

What do you think your business’ experience says about the pandemic, or the economy caused by the pandemic?

 

I mean, in some respects we’ve been fortunate, based on being in an industry where it’s good right now for Vermont because people are coming here. But we’re also hit with a lot of the issues that we’re seeing, you know, it’s just it’s a house going up $20-30,000 in Connecticut’s not a big deal.

 

When the couple’s making $2, 3, 400,000… you know, and they’re buying a million dollar house, but if the lumber goes up [in price] disproportionately in Vermont, it’s hard, you know? It’s a lot harder. But hopefully it all gets back to normal in some respects.

 

Great. Well, thank you so much. 

 

Dollar General

 

Reporting by: Taggart Schrader    

 

Photos by: Julia Fortin

 

The people in the story have asked to remain anonymous.

 

 

Dollar General sat quietly on the Barre-Montpelier road, with a couple of workers inside there was almost no one there. With the global pandemic and supply chain issues, they haven’t really had full shelves since the beginning of the pandemic. 

 

What is the situation with the employees, do you get many people wanting to work here?

 

We can’t find any people to hire, there is just nobody that wants to work here. Well, it’s the pay, not only that but also no benefits because you are working part-time. But the other thing is, as a Vermonter, just driving from here to Montpelier, I have never seen so many help wanted signs. 

 

 

What shortages have you experienced?

 

Trucks would come in weekly, and there was just not enough to keep the shelves filled, it wasn’t just paper products, it was also food as well. There were also not enough drivers for the trucks. Baby formula recently as well, and we haven’t been able to get milk for three weeks or so.

 

Did you have random shut-downs depending on the amount of covid cases?

 

In the beginning, we all were shut down. But Dollar General wanted us to start working again pretty quickly because big stores can’t be shut down for all that long. People didn’t want to have the staff touch their items or come in contact with the staff, and the staff didn’t want to get covid from interacting with the customers either.

Napa Sanel Auto Parts

 

Charlie Haynes

 

Photographer: Ivy Heinz

 

 

The pandemic has affected all industries, and especially the automotive industry, including automotive parts.  The struggles of the supply chain are being seen, and at Fisher Auto Parts on the Barre -Montpelier road in Berlin, parts they used to stock 20 of, they are struggling to stock 1 of.  

 

At NAPA Sanel Auto Parts we met with manager Joe Whitaker to get all the details of what is going on in the Auto Parts industry with Covid.

 

What’s been the most important impact on your business from the pandemic?

 

Hard to find help. The supply chain is down, and people seem to be fixing their cars more.  

 

Can you describe your experience with supply chains or getting stuffing and use it for your business?

 

It has been hard to get (items), a lot of it has to do with shipping issues, obviously no help for drivers. So everything sits around, it’s hard to get.  Then there’s obviously manufacturers who have help issues too and trying to get everything else.  Then you have just the raw materials that seem to be lacking. 

 

 

So can you describe your experience in the labor market over the past two years? 

 

Labor markets are not very good.  Yeah, we’ve been running short handed here,m doing more business running with less employees.  It’s hard to get anybody in to even look for a job.  

 

 

Have you been able to incentivize people at all with better benefits or pay?

 

I don’t think our benefits and incentives are that bad anyways, but with what they received for not working outweighed, it spoiled them so everybody expects top dollar when they come back to work, and it just doesn’t support that.

 

How many employees did you have before and how many do you have now?

 

I have I would say nine, actually eight now, and we were running around 11-12 before.  

Can you describe how you felt or your expectations for your business when you first heard things were shutting down?

 

It was different. I really didn’t get nervous. We stayed open through the whole pandemic. We did close the doors, we had curbside. But this has never really slowed down. I mean, we were pretty steady, and it’s actually picked up since then. Really didn’t affect us a lot, other than losing help and them not coming back.

 

How are the pushes for more electric cars now with gas prices affecting your business?

 

It hasn’t yet.  

 

Are you guys starting to carry any parts for electric cars at all?

 

Not much, it’s hard to tell what they’re going to need. We carry a lot of hybrids. But straight electric, there really isn’t a big call for it yet.  It’s gonna be a while before that really outweighs a regular gasoline engine. 

 

Are there any specific items you have struggled to get and why?

 

Brakes mostly, rotors, pads, they are hard to come by. Those are starting to come back through. Oil filters are still a big issue. That’s probably the main one right now that we’re lacking. Hard to tell why, but it’s a supply issue.

 

The Quilter’s Garden

 

Reporting by: Luke Page Photos by: Alexis Blanchard

 

 

Dee Lamberton was carrying out business, attempting to sort inventory while new supplies were on their way. Cloth and other sewing supplies had been coming in at an alarming rate. Covid 19 had slowed supply chains; now, with things getting back to normal everything was arriving at once. 

 

Can you talk about how this business started?

 

I opened in September 2007 … So, I’ve been open for 15 years since September

 

Did the demand for cloth and/or yarn ever have a negative effect on the inventory here?

 

Yes. And it still is. We didn’t get shipments for quite a while. And now they’re catching up. So what’s happening is we’re getting way too much at the same time. And now and still we have sewing machines that aren’t due until quarter three of this year or next year, because even the sewing machines have been delayed.

What are some items that are hard to get a hold of currently?

 

Definitely sewing machines. And there are some higher end ones that they make. The middle range they’re making but they don’t have the chips in them. So they’re kind of like in storage until the chips get produced and then they’ll be sent to us, and most of them are the sewing machines that are made in Thailand. We even had an occurrence last December where a typhoon hit the ship that was coming from Thailand and what they do is they throw the crates overboard to save the ship. So we lost a lot of sewing machines because they were sent into the ocean.

 

What is the item that most people are looking for when they come here?

 

Here it’s mostly fabric. That’s our big item as far as quality sewing machines. I did sell quite a few sewing machines during the COVID because a lot of people want to start quilting and they know they don’t have machines or they don’t have one that works. And we got a lot more service than before so we definitely picked up on our service of the machines which was awesome. 

 

 

Could you tell me about the process of donations you take part in?

 

See, I don’t remember how but some lady from Burlington came down. She was contracted to make masks for all the city, the Burlington city workers, the police, and the medical individuals. So I gave her 50% off of whatever she needed. So I didn’t quite lose money but I know, it was definitely $6,000 worth of fabric that I gave away.

 

How do you and Joannes Fabric co-exist?

 

Well, they’re our competitor but they don’t sell the same fabric we do. They have the same scissors and needles, but the fabric we sell is only sold to independent quality quilting stores. The fabric is higher quality because it has a higher thread count. And it’s printed differently. But overall, we just have better quality items in stock. 

 

AAA

 

Reporting by Ava Fitzgerald and Amy Felice, Photos by Amy Felice

 

 

At 11:00 on a Thursday, the sky was gray, and the AAA Travel Agency sat quietly across from the Wayside on the Barre-Montpelier Road. The company shares a little, one-story brick building with a massage therapist, and the entrance faces away from the busy road. White overhead lights brighten the inside. A few employees sat at their desks behind plexiglass COVID barriers, and a soft ringtone flitted through the otherwise silent office. 

 

The pandemic shut down everyone’s vacation plans, resulting in a spike of calls from frantic travelers with questions and cancellations.  AAA remained open the entirety of the pandemic, but were left with a huge problem: nobody knew they were still in business. Martha Ribolini, a Branch Manager, explains. 

 

What’s been the most important impact on your business with the pandemic?

 

I think probably the most important impact is just members and just letting them know that we’re still here. Keeping members aware that you know, AAA is still here for them. 

 

Even though with the pandemic in the shutdown, we were still available by phone to help them and we’re still selling insurance and, if they had any travel needs that were put on hold that were accessible. So the biggest thing is just keeping the name and communication.

 

Could you describe your experience with supply chains and getting stuff you need? Do you deal with any of that?

 

A little bit? You know, we deal with some of the supplies, a lot of the stuff in house as far as the travel store. We weren’t really selling products during the height of the pandemic. The doors were shut, so people weren’t coming in and buying it, but we were still here by phone and by email. 

 

So as far as the supplies once everything reopened, we still had stock up so it was easy to get new inventory. As far as you know, the other supplies are more internet and travel related. So it’s not like you need a product.

 

So you didn’t have to deal with supply shortages?

 

No, not really no. Because I got enough ahead. So the cleaning and was that not always being here? It was fine.

 

Can you describe your experience with the labor market over the past two years?

 

Yeah, as far as with AAA, we were fortunate enough to keep all of our employees- nobody had to go on unemployment. They just stayed at home and ones that could work from home work from home and the ones that couldn’t as far as people changing jobs or moving you know, that has been a little bit of a challenge and then just getting new people in to try new careers and moving forward. So longevity has probably been the biggest challenge.

 

You mentioned that you didn’t really lose workers. Do you have pretty much the exact same amount of employees as you did before the pandemic?

 

We actually hired some additional ones, and then we had some switch or you know, a few that were near retirement that decided after the pandemic that maybe it was time to retire. So we had to replace positions. So AAA fortunately was a good company as far as retaining employees are in the whole band.

 

 

How was this year’s mud season? I know this mud season was a pretty bad one- What was your experience with it?

 

It wasn’t too much. I think that’s just the roadside. You know, we had to field some of the calls but it was just getting them to the departments that they needed to as far as the phone calls, we don’t actually deal with the tow trucks here in the branch. So it’s just getting people to where they need to go to get the services they need.

 

Can you describe your expectations for the business when you heard things were shutting down like when the pandemic first started?

 

when the pandemic first started, of course, it was probably disbelief, just like everybody else in the world. But it was just more about keeping the communication out there so we could help the people who were supposed to be traveling and needed rescheduling. 

 

We were here to help them to move forward. So again, our biggest thing was just keeping the lines of communication open, keeping the availability here to do what we could do to still as a business, you know, get revenue and income, you know, as far as being able to move forward. 

 

So anything like insurances or people needing products or some people buying new cars even during the pandemic and needing insurance just having the availability to be here, so that we could still generate some revenue.

 

 

You mentioned reminding people that you’re still here. Has that been a problem? Do people forget?

 

No, well, during the pandemic, nobody knew like, are people open or are they closed? You drove down the road and it was deserted. So it was just a matter of, we’re here. You can reach us by a phone number. Just to let people know that if you have problems with your insurance, if you are still stuck somewhere you know, us just reaching out to him we’re here if you need our help, you know, if you need rearranging if you need anything, we’re here, so give us a call. So it was just that because some people just panicked and everything shut down. You know, what are we going to do? Yeah, you know, everything’s shut down but not really shut down.

 

So those for sure like, like a pandemic related thing like that’s never been like on your radar like before that

 

That was definitely a pandemic thing because you know, it’s I mean, as you said, like the Wayside deserted you go down on the road, absolutely nobody out and about So, but we still had to me I was still being delivered. Certain things were still happening, people were still out of the country when everything shut down. They needed to get home. So they just needed to know that we’re still here. That was probably the biggest challenge. Just keeping the communication out and keeping the information going. 

 

One-Stop Country Pet Supply

 

Reporting by Evie Moore, Photos by Blakelee Hoffman

 

Rats Photo by Blakelee Hoffman One Stop Country Pet Supply Berlin, Vermont

 

Next to McDonald’s there is a small, one-story strip mall. The sign to one business reads One Stop Country Pet Supply. 

 

The inside of the store is in stark contrast to its outer appearance. The walls are lined with a rainbow of feed bags. The shelves are stocked with multi-colored leashes, harnesses, and pet supplies. In the back corner of the store, fish tanks are stacked against the walls. The tank lights paint a warm blue glow onto the floor.

 

At the checkout counter, Toby Cromer, a clerk, was unpacking a box. He worked at TD bank for the majority of the pandemic and is new to One Stop. When he came to One Stop the pandemic pet frenzy had already occured, and things haven’t slowed down since.

 

Toby Cromer Interview Photo by Blakelee Hoffman One Stop Country Pet Supply Berlin, Vermont

 

What does a typical day look like for you here and how has that been affected by the pandemic?

 

When I got here, the pandemic had already been going full swing, it’s been pretty much the same since I started at TD. Everything shut down at first when we were finally acknowledging it in the US. 

 

TD to their credit was super cautious and shut us down. In the lobby, no one could come in, it was only drive-up or very special appointments. They were trying to figure out exactly how to keep us safe with the masks. Washing, like all the procedures they wanted to do. 

 

I suppose it changed like everyone had to.… 

 

Axolotl Photo by Blakelee Hoffman One Stop Country Pet Supply Berlin, Vermont

 

What’s been the most important impact on one stop from the pandemic? Especially with animals, food supplies, etc., how have you guys worked to address these issues?

 

..Some foods can’t be gotten or supplies in general of whatever kind because either the shipping companies messed it up or we can’t get it, like the tin for the cans and that was a thing for a while.

 

Have you guys seen any positive changes or benefited during the pandemic?

 

…The pet industry has. Everyone was stuck indoors. Everybody wanted a buddy whether it was a dog or cat or a small animal. More exotic kinds of animals, reptiles, and stuff like that industry really went up?

 

Toby Cromer and Fred Photo by Blakelee Hoffman One Stop Country Pet Supply Berlin, Vermont

 

What is your experience with the labor market?

 

During the pandemic, a lot of people kind of vanished. They were afraid. Some of us were getting supplemental checks. But generally, it seems like no one has really come back as we’ve gotten back into it. 

 

But you just drive down any road and it’s just “hiring now”, hiring, hiring. Since I’ve been here, we have fought so hard to get anyone else new. We had a manager who was hired because our previous manager left. She worked a day and a half before she walked out. It was a bummer.

 

Can you describe how you felt or your expectations when you heard things were shutting down in the pandemic?

 

I didn’t really have any. This was such a completely new thing. That still didn’t quite feel real. I’m 33 and at no time in my life did we have anything near to that. The worst was like, “Oh, there’s a flu going around campus? Be careful.” I had no expectations. Aside from that, things were going to get very weird and very different. And they did.

 

Fish Tank Photo by Blakelee Hoffman One Stop Country Pet Supply Berlin, Vermont

 

Reporting by Ben Bourgeois Photos by Sean Butler

 

 

On this Tuesday morning, Dunkin Donuts on Barre Montpelier Road was quiet. Shawn Darmartin had to shut down because no one showed up to work. The store had never before been closed even as Covid outbreaks were putting the world on lockdown.

 

Dunkin Donuts has been thriving with their drive thru, and was not slowed down by the pandemic. The labor market has been the only struggle for Dunkin in the central Vermont area. 

 

Thank you for meeting with me. So getting right into it, were there any problems with the supply chain?

 

No, because we have our own cooperatives. So all in individual franchisees for Duncan. And it’s basically nationwide, there’s like four or five key centers, and we pre buy a lot of our stuff. So I mean, yeah, we ran out of some stuff like maybe bags like packaging. I’m thankful for that.

 

How has the labor market been?

 

We’ve been in business for 26 years. We always know when the economy goes up and down you kind of struggle but it seems like you know, everywhere you look, everybody’s hiring. I mean, we have people set up interviews,sometimes two, three, a day. nobody shows up. Well, they show up for interviews, it’s the jobs they don’t show up for. So that’s been the big challenge.

 

Have you ever had to shut down because of people not showing up?

 

In 26 years, I’ve had to shut down the Berlin store two times, over the course of the past year. You know, I’m grateful that we were kind of the only one, the only store in town that was able to stay open. Yeah. Super busy. Ever since.

 

Did you ever have to fully stop operations for the pandemic or did it kind of run continuously?

 

It kind of did. It was scary in the beginning for me, we closed our lobby, so we didn’t allow anyone inside but the drive-through continued. And again, like I said, up to more recently, it’s not really a pandemic issue. It’s been helpful to have a shutdown but I haven’t talked to guys your age. We have school kids who can’t really come and work and close shifts. So it’s a challenge.

 

The majority of the people that work here, are they students or what’s sort of the age range?

 

Good question. So we have a few key people that have been with me for a very long time. And they’re probably more in the range. I mean, they span I don’t know. I mean, I have a 66 year old woman, unfortunately since I took over, but for the most part, I’d say now the range is between 70 – 80 to 46 – 47. Maybe it’s more summer season. I get seasonal help from students so I get foreign students come in the summer. COVID obviously, kind of messed that up, but that’s been a big help. So at least we have the seasonal who will be in good shape.

 

Have you found that the older people or the younger people are more likely to not show up like who has been more of a problem to show up to work?

 

you guys are just, you know, just different. And again, I think it comes down to the parents a lot of times. I mean, work ethic, you can’t really teach anyone that you have. I mean, the biggest thing for my business is being dependable and I put up with a lot of crap but if you like to show up and that’s basically all you have to do when you’re gonna get you’re gonna get a raise. 

 

Nobody’s making minimum wage starting. I mean, I wouldn’t get anybody if I was paying minimum wage. I think it’s up almost four bucks right now. But I don’t know. It’s weird. It doesn’t seem like it’s real. I mean, these types of entry level jobs are kind of like training because yeah, you’re gonna learn on this job, everything you’re ever going to need for any type of job or the rest of your life. You know, being responsible for showing up on time. Being accountable for what’s expected and working in a team environment.

 

How many employees would you say you have overall?

 

Here for this location, we probably have around 20 depending on how busy the store is, but between the three locations, we probably had around 50 to 60 at any one time. Right now, we probably don’t even have that.

 

How was the original shutdown?

 

The biggest fear is that we weren’t gonna be able to pay our bills. Employees were gonna be scared not to show up. We didn’t have too much issue with that. Thank God. You know, I mean, it’s the fear of the unknown, really, I mean, now two years later, it’s like, we’re kind of just sick of it.

 

Yeah. And are your employees still mandated to wear masks?

 

No. Just makes them feel comfortable. Almost no one does.

 

How did that sort of transition from masks to no masks happen?

 

It became a quarter of a corporate standard? They issue that it was required. I think that was the spacing, some of the labels facing more frequent cleaning that type of stuff. I think we probably transitioned over the last six to eight months. 

 

With corporate, how did COVID Strain your relationship or did it strengthen it?

 

It definitely strengthened it. The thing is, it got bought out by somebody else. That was in the works. But we had Friday calls with corporations in Ireland to franchisees. So that was kind of comforting and assuring that you know, they actually provided thermometers for us, I mean, things like corporate, we usually always send them royalties and really they pay for anything. So that was good. 

 

They stepped up and provided a lot of stuff for us. I didn’t have any outbreaks till much later. So that caused some issues with the health situation.

 

Do you feel like that was the most stressful environment when you originally had those outbreaks here or was the lack of jobs like which one of those teams would be more of an impact to your business? 

 

I think it’s kind of a perfect storm. Just like all together and it was just and then of course then it then it became I mean, I’ve heard a lot of excuses for people falling out over the years. That has become the standard. You don’t question that. You have to go back over to the other Berlin’s store. Like what are you working on with that because it’s closed right now. So what’s your remodeling your remodeling area, we’re due for remodel, so it’s asking for more and more time to get that done. And that’s general again, that’s a corporate standard requirement. They actually also stepped up when we were supposed to remodel last year, but they pushed all the stores they gave us extra time because of COVID and due to the supply chain on the construction side, that’s been laying stuff.

 

Yeah. So how’s the supply chain affected in that construction right now? 

 

basically the standard week. Standard lead time for stuff four to five weeks has pretty much become double. Really, luckily, and a lot of stuff I mean if the manufacturer that makes our blender for our island Oasis drinks yeah shut down because they have no components to make. Really so any new blender anybody needs new blenders online so luckily any store is obviously just remodeled and we obviously have our own add additional ones. So there’s a few issues like that.

 

Can you guys hear that? Yeah. And how long is that expected to be close?

 

No no, it’s all the equipment and it’s already been ordered like months ago. So it’s finally time, believe me. I’m worried about registering our POS system for the registers. They’re also having to help the shortage so I had no one to come, they’re supposed to come and remove them so we can do the work and then come and reinstall. So we’ve had to do that on our own.

 

So has there been any like speaking of the cash or any of any other technical problems that you’ve had?

 

Yeah, As far as that goes, we’ve been okay. glitches in the system. No, we’ve, we’ve had issues but I think it’s our internal software. Yeah, the company uses and finds technicians to do service stuff. Yeah. Because now it has become a nightmare. Everybody pays with a mobile app or or credit card meaning over half of the customers do so. machine we had. Again, I don’t think that was last year. We did have an issue and it was down so why did it take us cash? Yeah. Pretty well. Nobody carries cash

 

Do you say that now is probably your highest sales with the drive thru and this being a thing or was there a time in the pandemic that also spiked as well?

 

It spiked because our wintertime we usually draw for that first year. First year pandemic we had record numbers. We’re still gonna have the random number. My costs are going up food now and the labor like I said, so we have to lay out

 

Has there been any backlash from increasing prices? Or are people just kind of going along with it. 

 

three times a day regularly. I mean, we also have the benefit when we aren’t the only guy entitled to doughnuts and coffee or small beans or lunchtime. But the other assuring thing. We did have a lot of customers during the pandemic that were really grateful that we were open. So I know I know I’m supposed to be home but I just want my coffee and I just drive down here. And I go straight back home. So that was good. I mean, it’s kind of like a family.

 

Do you have more than one supply chain through Dunkin? 

 

So we have different vendors, but it’s all handled through our co-op. Technically, it’s kind of all centralized. But usually all of our suppliers try to get at least a couple two or three. Yeah, because like now, I mean, now there is going to be a shortage of our cream cheese. The individual packets have a little foil top. Yeah. So now some of the stuff I guess that comes from the manufacturer it’s a foil manufacturer and it’s getting tied up and forth. So we’re probably going to have a shortcoming. She’s Yeah. Yeah, that packaging

 

Any other thoughts?

 

No, I mean, I think this is a good experience for us nationwide and understand that we shouldn’t be dependent on just one especially when it comes to supply chain and realize that how much the whole world is dependent on China for a lot of stuff. Yeah, so I think it’s good to be a little bit more independent. I mean, that’s definitely

 

Reporting by Oliver Hansen Photos by Alexi Duplessis

 

Empty Storefront, taken by Alexi Duplessis

 

On this Thursday, the lot of Montpelier Volkswagen was bare, with few cars and no customers. Inside the situation was the same, most employees were at their desks, a few answering phones.

 

Montpelier Volkswagen has been able to survive through the pandemic because of their strong team of employees who have stuck with them. They have struggled heavily from farther down the supply chain however, having a difficult time getting new cars and parts for their service department.

 

What has been the most important impact that your business has faced from the pandemic?

 

Probably the most important impact is going to be the lack of inventory. You know, we’re just not getting the cars we’re used to having. Now, it’s becoming more we can’t get parts to service the cars so it’s really just a matter of getting product on the ground.

 

 

Could you describe your supply chains and getting cars and parts that you need?

Yeah, so a car that we have, say an order for a customer or a customer wants a specific car, it now takes anywhere from three months to a year where before is usually a six to eight week turn around. We’ve got about eight new cars here on the lot, where usually we have about 200 to 300 new cars. So the whole supply chain is just kind of dragged out, became much longer. 

 

Could you describe your experience with the labor market over the pandemic?

 

So the labor market hasn’t quite affected us here in the storefront. We have a good core group of employees that have been here for a long time, that have stuck with us throughout everything. But again, going back to getting cars here, getting parts here, that’s affecting us. The ports where the cars come into off the ships don’t have the people to process them. Then there’s the shortage of truck drivers to truck the cars from port to here, so that part has affected us, but as far as day to day business, we’ve been lucky there.

 

Could you describe how you felt when you heard that stuff was starting to shut down from the pandemic? Personally and business wise? 

 

So yeah, when we first heard about the pandemic and stuff was going to shut down. We definitely thought it was going to be just completely shut down. The faucet turned off, no one would be buying cars. What are we going to do? Because originally we thought, you know, the word was, you know, two weeks to a month will be shut down and we’ll get past this. And here we are. Three years later. Still coming through it. But yeah, the first initial reaction is kind of a shock. Scared, not knowing what was going to happen.

 

When stuff started opening up, how did you feel? And also, how did the amount of customers change compared to before the pandemic?

 

Yeah so, we don’t see as many customers as we did before. However, the customers we’re seeing now are more serious about buying a car because they know there’s limited inventory. So they’re not really coming in just kind of browsing around seeing what you got. They kind of already know, Okay, these are the handful of cars they have, this is the one I want. I know the habit of coming to buy it. So definitely a more serious, more prepared, buyer now. 

 

Over the course of the pandemic, electric cars have been a lot more hyped up and I was wondering how many more people you see coming to look for an electric car compared to before?

 

Yeah, there’s definitely a lot of people, a lot more people coming to look for electric cars, especially in recent weeks with the surge in gas prices. But yeah, we’ve got Volkswagen we have one electric car ID 4, it’s a front wheel or all wheel drive SUV. And add all of those we got we’ve sold out of it’s a pre order now. It’s been so successful with pre orders that they’re about 18 months out so there’s definitely a heightened demand for them.

 

At the start of the pandemic, from a service point of view, how did you guys react to the news, that stuff was going to be shutting down for, at first not a long time but then eventually, for a while.

 

The service end of it was kind of tough, because, you know, people weren’t traveling and stuff like that. And the biggest thing is, once they did come in, after the pandemic kind of eased away a little bit, they’re coming in with cars, where the brakes are all rusty and all that because they hadn’t driven the car a lot. Now with Vermont’s new inspection law, you couldn’t have more than a half inch of rust on the surface of the brake rotor. They were pretty upset, because basically, we’ve had cars where one year they did the brakes, then the following year they came back in for an inspection and they only drove 2-3000 miles and the brakes were all rusted again, because of not driving it. So it was a learning curve, to deal with the customers and explain to them what was going on. Because then it’s an expense, when you have to do a four wheel brake job on a Volkswagen or Mazda, roughly you can spend, you know, $1,100- $1,200. And you’re doing that every year, and you’re not driving your car, you’re not a happy camper. 

 

 

Now that things are starting to open up again, have you seen an overload of people coming in, so it’s hard to keep up with too much work? 

 

Yeah. So there’s no cars on this lot. I mean, there are cars, but it’s usually not the kind that a customer wants. So they can’t buy a car, their car needs work, so they’re fixing their car. So we’re seeing an overload of service work. Whereas sales, they’re slow, because they don’t really have any cars to sell. You know, there’s still cars here and there, but not like they were prior to COVID starting, you know, we’ve seen a rise in servicing parts because people are fixing the cars because they can’t buy new ones. 

 

We used to see when somebody came in and their car needed $4,000 worth of work, it was a no brainer. They’re going to sales, they’re gonna trade it and buy a new car. You can’t do that anymore, so they fix it. What he’s running into now is everybody’s fixing their cars.

 

 Parts, we can’t get any of the parts. And then a bunch of the wiring harnesses and control modules that are using Volkswagens and mazdas were being made in Ukraine and all lines were stopped. They’re not making them because they’re in the middle of a war. Plus Volkswagen has a pretty big problem with their control modules and their harnesses right now in their new rigs. 

 

But we’re running into a problem not with just maintenance but with parts, brake rotors, filters, you know, everyday people are driving their cars now and he cannot get parts, we have a pretty good backorder line. 

 

Were you affected by people leaving and a lack of workforce?

 

It’s always been a struggle to hire quality technicians. This job is getting harder and harder because there’s more electronics involved, electrical and all that, so the amount of kids getting out of high school going into the automotive field are few and far between. 

 

Granted, I do have a technician now that came out of the VTC program. He worked for us through the school year two days a week. He just graduated this year and now he’s working full time for us. So you know, thank God we have places like that that are recruiting these guys to teach them automotive, because face it, a lot of kids coming out of high school or going to college aren’t going into automotive. 

 

They’re either going into computers or whatever because nobody wants to be hands-on anymore. It’s the same as the trades: electrical, plumbing, AC, refrigeration. You know, those trades are struggling, those people are very, very busy. And people aren’t going into that trade in the same way as the automotive trade.

 

With the supply chains right now, are there any specific parts that are hard to get?

 

Windshields right now, we’ve got some that have been on backorder for a really long time, bumper covers, headlights. So anybody that gets into an accident right now, well the insurance companies have been just totaling the car, because they can’t get the parts to fix it. 

 

Because these new cars, you know, if it’s a 5, 6, 7-year-old car, they can get aftermarket or used parts to get the car back together back to the customer. But, on these new cars that are a year or two old, they don’t have the aftermarket. And they don’t have the used, you know, because the manufacturer is now changing everything about the car every single year. So we can’t use the same bumper cover from one year to another. And it’s just yeah, that supply chain has really affected everything. 

 

Sears

 

Reporting by Wylder Gluck

 

Photos by Abigail Derosia

 

Although Sears made up 1% of the US economy in 1969, it has been in decline, dropping from 3,500 stores to 50 since 2013. This is largely due to their shift in focus from stores to their online site, which hasn’t been able to keep up with competition like Amazon.

 

Eric has been working at Sears for more than 20 years, and due to the change in owners, he was recently promoted to a manager position.

 

Sears checkout area with Eric behind the counter

 

 

What would you say has been the most important impact on the business from the pandemic?

 

Well, availability of items. It’s been sparse, but now it’s pretty good.

 

What do you mean by that?

 

Well, certain items when it first hit. They just started with the back orders. Some things can take months to come in, but now they give us a list so we know what to order. If you want to order some specific thing you see online, you have to have all the same brands. Usually, there’s going to be one item that’s going to take a long time to come in. But if you want a microwave, a dishwasher, we know which ones you can get.

 

What kind of items did you have the most trouble getting?

 

GE, General Electric. They came out of Mexico, and I don’t know if it was COVID or getting across the border. I don’t know what the issue was. They’re up to 85-90% now, so they come timely, within a couple of weeks. Everything’s kind of back to normal in that sense now.

 

Let’s say you ordered the wrong thing. Sometimes you still get it, but it was eight out of 10. You know, now it’s like one out of 10 You might have an issue.

 

Lawn mowers are displayed in front of Sears.

 

Were there any other big impacts like that?

 

Well, the other impact was getting people to work. We’d have interviews and maybe one out of five would show up for the interview. And then, you say “okay, you start Wednesday,” and on Wednesday, no show.

 

Did you have a bigger employee base before the pandemic?

 

It might have been easier, somebody would show up and work. Easier to find those people who want to work. They’d show up for the interview, they’d show up for work. Whereas maybe they were just meeting their quota for contacts, you know, have you gone to this place and that place? You start Monday. Monday has come. Where are ya?

 

How did you first feel when you heard things were shutting down for the pandemic?

 

I was a little worried, like oh, I’m not going to get a paycheck. I’m gonna be out of work. I suppose I could have gone that route. I have asthma. So my doctor was like, you can’t, but then we got into the transition between owners. They made me the manager. We got an owner who’s a good guy, who takes care of us. Dave Thomas. I was a little worried, and didn’t want to be sitting at home. Sears said we were essential. I suppose if you need a refrigerator, you need a refrigerator. Stove, you need a stove. So we didn’t have any downtime. We went right through it.

 

Wylder Gluck interviews in the main Sears showroom.

 

What was that transition like from different bosses?

 

It was a little scary that the place might get shut down, they shut a lot of Sears down. They didn’t want to shut us down, so we got excess inventory from other stores that were shut down.

 

They shipped us like 12 wall ovens. We sell like two a year maybe. We sold it, their clearance, we sold them eventually.

 

Did you notice any other big changes?

 

I suppose it was probably more online ordering. The other issue is you don’t have us to tell you if you order that item to expect six months, sometimes it’ll say it’s available, but once you get through the order, you see that it’s not coming.

 

Did that cause any problems with customers?

 

Yeah, people were all upset. You promised it was gonna be here. Computer. We had lots of cancellations.

 

What kind of buying patterns have you seen? How has that changed over time?

 

I mean, you’re in competition with online ordering.

 

What do you mean by competition?

 

Well, you might come and buy it here. A lot of folks buy it online. A lot of folks like to come and see and touch and feel and open, and get a little firsthand knowledge on it, as opposed to just clicking.

 

Do you think Sears is still a competitive business?

 

Yeah.

 

How competitive would you say? Do you see it improving as a company?

 

Our availability and product is there right now. It’s hard to say.

 

Eric stands in front of ovens on display

 

What do you think the current state of Sears is? I was looking online, and a lot of sites were saying that all the stores would be closed by May of this year.

 

Well, it’s May. I don’t see that happening. They closed all the stores that didn’t have owners. Transition stores or nonprofitable stores, stores that don’t make enough to be open. We were one of the better ones. I think we’re eighth in the nation.

 

Why do you think that is? Is there something you’d contribute your success to?

 

What would help is not having Home Depot and Lowe’s right here in the same town. You gotta go 50 Miles either way for the folks who want to look and see and touch the product. It’s local, stuff is available, and it’s on display. At one point, we got pretty low on display.

 

Do you see more diversity in products coming in? Through the years?

 

It’s certain items. Right now we’re having a hard time getting microwaves and vacuums, although we get some vacuums and we haven’t had rototillers in two years, we get rototillers this year. It comes in phases.

 

Storage rooms holding extra stock behind the customer section of the store.

 

What’s wanted? Or is it just what you can get?

 

Yeah. Freezers, everybody wanted a freezer at the beginning of the pandemic, everybody had to have a freezer, how many pizzas can they get in this freezer? I don’t know.

 

What would you say recently has been your most popular product?

 

It’s pretty split. It depends on what you need. You need a refrigerator. You need a washing machine. Some days a dishwasher is on sale. More folks will come in for dishwashers. Refrigerators, they come in more for refrigerators. They might think “Oh, yeah, we do need one.” But it’s more so what is broken? Right now, grills, tractors, push mowers. Those are what’s picking up. Air conditioners if the heat comes back, get those right after the heatwave.

 

It sounds like you’re doing pretty well right now, was there any time where you were kind of struggling as a store?

 

Not really, I mean, when we had low product availability we kind of worried, but you just can’t sell as much. We get more people canceling, or three cancellations every day doesn’t help. The bottom line was that just because it would take so long for it to get here, people wouldn’t want it anymore. It’s easy to do with a little chest freezer, but if it’s a $1,500 refrigerator it’s kind of hard. The gas prices too, make the prices of the appliances higher. That’s creeping up. That’s all of the appliances, you gotta get it here, and then get it to where it’s supposed to go. Oil is also creeping up in pricing.

 

Do you think that trend is going to continue?

 

I mean it’s going to level off sometime, but it’s not happening yet. Let’s hope it levels off under $5.

 

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