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Shoppers finding alternative to crowded grocers at Columbus Farmers Market during outbreak

The Columbus Farmers Market in Burlington County is open for business during the coronavirus pandemic. Well, sort of. Only seven out of 60 stores are open, but they are essential, and customers are turning to them during this time.

Rachel Burmeister is trying to avoid grocery stores during the coronavirus pandemic, but she still needs essentials each week.
The Delanco resident has resorted to hunting and finding what she needs at the Columbus Farmers Market.
“My family hunts, so meat is kind of covered,” Burmeister said. “We get whatever else we need here.”
She pointed up at Ben’s Meat Market in the Columbus Farmers Market on Route 206, where she was buying all the additional meat that the family couldn’t find in the wilderness. She said the family is buying its fruits, vegetables and breads at the market as well.
“I won’t go to the supermarket. I don’t feel like dealing with the crowds. It’s insane,” Burmeister added. “I’m out here because nobody’s here.”
Only seven of the 60 stores inside the farmers market are open during the pandemic. The others are shuttered by the state’s wide-ranging shutdown order that closed all nonessential businesses indefinitely.
Open vendors include the Amish Market, Columbus Produce, Pete’s Bargain Outlet, GreenTop Garden Center, Kate & Al’s Pizza Pies and Pete’s Pizzeria. The eateries are only open for takeout as not sit-down service in allowed.
Both measures, the closure of nonessential businesses and seating areas, have limited crowd sizes at the normally busy market, which often draws thousands of customers at once.
Yet those seven essential businesses, especially inside the Amish Market, which counts as one business on the Columbus roster but has seven separate food stands, are still serving customers. They are providing county residents with meats, cheeses, lunch meats, fruits and vegetables, and they aren’t running out supplies, customers and vendors say.
Thiss combination, of available essentials and a normal shopping experience away from crowds, has attracted extra customers, like Burmeister, to certain businesses during the pandemic, according to business owners in the Amish Market.
Lloyd Riehl, who owns Ben’s Meat Market with his brother Ben Riehl, said their business is up 50 to 60%. He also said popular items like chicken, pork and beef have tripled in sales.
“It’s been absolutely crazy,” Riehl said. “It’s maybe a little bit of a panic. You have to have food to survive, you know?”
Mike Stoltzfus, the owner of The Pickle Corner, across the market from Ben’s, said business is up about 15%. According to Stoltzfus, customers normally buy about a half pound of lunch meat on a weekly basis. Now they are buying “two or three pounds,” he said.
“People are just getting food where they can get food, I think,” he added.
The market’s customers backed up this statement on Friday afternoon.
“I went to the regular market and they are out of meat,” said one Springfield woman. “So I figured, you know what, if they are open I’ll swing in here.”
“I haven’t gone to a supermarket at all,” added another woman, a North Hanover resident.
But not all of the market’s open businesses are doing well.
Some, like Stoltzfus BBQ, depend on sit-down customers for about half of their business.
Around 3 p.m. on Friday, there was a crowd of 10 people waiting in line at Stoltzfus BBQ. Yet it didn’t matter all that much.
Owner Dan Stoltzfus said he was on track to do worse that week, with about a 50% decrease in business, than the week before, which saw a 40% drop.
“We’ve been here 25 years,” he said. “This is the worst stretch we’ve had.”
“But we can go on a couple months if we have to,” he added.
Other businesses, like Columbus Produce, one of two open-air produce stands in the market, depend on a heavy traffic flow and a lot of walk-in customers.
On a normal Friday afternoon, there would have been about 1,000 cars in the lot, according to Fernando Onofre, the son of the family that owns Columbus Produce. But last Friday afternoon the lot was only about a quarter full.
By around 4 p.m., Columbus Produce had made only $400, well short of turning a profit, with only a few hours left before closing time, Onofre said.
“We try to make a profit but it seems like with this coronavirus it’s not working out right now,” he added.
Columbus Market officials said they are working through the situation with tenants, both open and closed vendors, on a “case by case basis.”
“At this stage we’re working through it a day at a time,” said Janice Ackerman, the manager of the market’s inside stores. “We’re not sure if we’ll freeze rents. We have to see how this all pans out.”
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