Working in a grocery store during coronavirus

Stories from behind the counter

Photo: Rubén Contreras

It’s been a while since we’ve shared some stories from the team at Paraiso Tropical on our blog! We’ve been spending some time learning more about each staff member’s experiences these past few months, including how they have managed during the continuously changing COVID-19 pandemic situation. Although we’ve shared some of what they had to say on social media, there’s much more that we haven’t yet had a chance to share!

We spoke with Luis from Paraiso South a few weeks after the store enforced COVID-19 safety measures and with Bruna, who works at both stores, just before the beginning of summer.

Photo: Kristina de Guzman


How long have you been working here at Paraíso?

Probably [11 months as of August], I’ll say.

Are you here from Canada or another country?

I came here to Edmonton from Nanaimo, British Colombia. But I’m originally from Bogotá, Colombia.

How many years have you been here in Canada?

About 8 years.

When did you move to Edmonton?

September last year.

Why did you move from Nanaimo to Edmonton?

‘Cause I’m studying at the University of Alberta. That’s where the funding is.

Can you share any memory you have of the first time you came to Paraiso – what was your experience like?

Well, I’ll say that it’s the most complete and the most stocked Latino store that I have seen. I’ve been in Victoria, Vancouver, and Calgary, and the stores that are focused on Latin American cuisine – it’s very, very limited [in] products. I don’t know how Jesus [Rivas Gonzalez Jr., owner] manages to [bring] all these products from all over Latin America. He’s not only focusing on small sectors of Latin America – [rather], it’s very broad.

Photo: Gela Cabrera Loa

What’s your role here in the store?

I’m technically the cook, but I’m also dipping into the kitchen management aspect, and the sanitation, which is my kind of background.

What kinds of foods do you cook here?

Pretty much everything. I do the pupusas, the yuca con chicharrón…I cook the empanadas.

Did you learn how to make those here or did you know how to cook those foods before?

Well, [I didn’t know how] to make [them], but I’m familiar with – I don’t like to say Latin American cuisine, but Colombian cuisine. Like the pupusas are pretty much just fancy arepas.

What’s your favourite kitchen item?

I like beef empanadas. There’s chicken, cheese, and beef [here.] I wish that we had more of a way [to sell take-out food] kind of the way you see it in Colombia – it’s on the street almost [rather than] going into the kitchen or restaurant.

Photo: Kristina de Guzman

What do you like best about working at Paraiso?

I may be romanticizing a bit but the representation of the Latin American culture.

Especially in the last two weeks, what would you say has the experience been like, especially with the coronavirus situation?

That’s actually very interesting, ‘cause my background is Biology. I’m doing a Masters in Neurobiology [right now], but [before that], I did Biology with a specialization in Microbiology.

So that’s where all the protocols for sanitation [come in]. I used to work in a lab, so I’m very strict about sanitation protocols and sterilizing surfaces and all that stuff. It’s a big responsibility of keeping in check, not only the food, but the staff, [too].

What sorts of changes have you seen in the last two weeks? Even your observations around foot traffic versus now people asking for deliveries.

Well, that’s the thing. Latino people – like at home – it seems a little bit more ‘Oh, what’s going on?’ Much more panicking. But I come here and like I see all the customers and they’re not fazed. It’s like ‘Oh!’ It’s a nice contrast there.

So you’re not seeing the same panic that you’re seeing at home?

Not as much. For example, I watch the news, and there are empty streets, empty grocery stores, like people with masks on and stuff like that. But here, you’ll see the families coming […] so we are actually getting more strict and restricting access for large groups.

With your family or people that you live with, are there concerns from their ends about you coming to work in a grocery store right now?

Ahh, not really. Well, this is almost like a chance thing, right? So, I’m exposing myself, right? But everybody’s exposed. It’s a gamble right now. I’m young, so I’m not in that high-risk [group]. But also, I’ve been working in labs where you get exposed to E. coli and deal with viruses and microbes, so I know personal protective equipment and maintain myself safely.

What would you say are your other challenges with working in a grocery store that some people might not think about or realize?

The microbiologist perspective comes in. Not everybody is careful enough, right? Like my job is to be strict about that. [My work] is also in the kitchen – I wouldn’t say [it’s] relaxed, but much more flex. Not like in a lab where you have to register in, register out, and keep everything clean. [Here, you can] give way a little bit, but not too much where it’s unsafe. So that’s an interesting thing that I’m trying to balance.

Photo: Kristina de Guzman

For a shopper who has never shopped at Paraiso, do you have any advice for them?

For the summer, a classic, Colombian, sunny, hot out snack would be an empanada with a very cold Pony Malta. Pony Malta is [a pop]. You get all the sugars and stuff from the fermentation of beer. So you ferment the barley and then the sugars are useless after that. But you could turn that into a beverage. You should keep [the Pony Malta] cold in the fridge and just come home with your empanada – this is the best.

Photo: Rubén Contreras

BRUNA CAMPOS GONZALEZ, northside/southside staff

How long have you been working here?

It’s been four years now since 2016.

What is your job title & your main job responsibilities here?

I am one of the managers/supervisors – I basically do everything (chuckles) from delivery to cleaning the floor, ordering products, helping with the payroll, charging the customers, stocking the shelves…basically everything!

What country are you originally from?

Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

How long have you been here in Canada?

Four years as well.

Can you share a little bit about what life was like in Brazil?

Well, I had a pretty good life there. I was with my parents until I basically moved here. I went to university, drove around…didn’t go to the beach as much as I should have now that I’m here (laughs). Now that I’m here and there’s winter, I’m like ‘man, all these opportunities I lost!’ But it was a pretty good life.

You learn to value the little things that you have over there when you move to a country where you don’t have your things. [Like] grabbing a papaya in the morning for [what would be] a dollar [here]. And it’s like you can afford to have a papaya every morning. Here, if you’re gonna have a papaya every morning, it’s too expensive. You can treat yourself to one every now and then, but not everyday. Also, [Brazil has] really good coffee and here, it’s like really good coffee, but it’s also more expensive. There, it’s cheap.

So it’s the little things! And then you’re like, ‘Wow! My country was so rich and it has so much culture’ – I only learned to value it for what it is once I moved away.

Can you share something interesting that happened to you at work or outside of work?

I’ve been watching Jesus drive a forklift and helping him bring [products] around to our south location. A lot of times, we kind of go through the stress of [him] not [being] at the south store. But I would be there and we would receive a whole bunch of products. One day, I’m like, ‘You know what? I understand the theory…I’m just gonna go and do it.’ It was not a very heavy pallet.

So I [drive the forklift] and the truck driver is helping me just maneuver it. I’m there sweating ,and I’m so nervous and going super slow. As I put the pallet down from the truck, I just hear ‘Woohoo! Yeaaaahh!!!’ I’m like ‘What?’ (laughs), and then I look at our next door neighbours at the south location, Betsy’s South African Deli. And both of them are just like super happy and smiling and like, ‘Bruna, good job!!’

Photo: Kristina de Guzman

I bring the pallet in [to our store] and I’m just working and [one of the ladies from Betsy’s] comes in and she brings a treat of dried jerk beef that they [make] there that she knows that I really like. Out of nowhere, she just gives [the treat] to me, and she’s like ‘Just ‘cause you did such a good drive job ,and you were brave to do it. I know you didn’t know how to do it.’ That was so cool, ‘cause it gave me the confidence to keep doing it and if I needed any help, since they know how to drive a forklift, I could ask them.

Now we have such a good relationship with [Betsy’s]. If they need a forklift (because they don’t have one), we lend it to them. Their super nice and super neighbourly, so we always have really good chats.

Photo: Rubén Contreras

What is your favourite product or kitchen item here?

That’s really hard. Hmmm…I really love the cheese buns that we sell. I really like the pastor meats as well for tacos and then…I really like our coconut water.

What has it been like working here for the last month or so with the coronavirus?

Well, now it’s a lot better. We were really stressed at the beginning with trying to keep up with the protocol, making sure that everyone felt safe, trying to keep the team’s spirits up and trying to reinvent ourselves: going online, doing deliveries, having SkiptheDishes, UberEATS and trying to contact our suppliers. [We were] trying to make sure that everybody had a little bit of everything and trying to prevent the hoarding. It’s been a hard balance.

Now, things have calmed down quite a bit, and we feel a bit more relieved, just getting more chill. We’re laughing more. We’re talking more. We’re being more spontaneous. And I don’t think that [these challenges] are just [happening] here. I think that it [happens] everywhere.

How did you manage stress when you came across it?

I don’t think we really managed it (laughs). I think we just kind of pushed through, kind of kept focusing on the next project, kept trying to communicate well with the team and our team leaders. And just trying to get feedback from them [like], ‘Guys, do you feel comfortable? What are your ideas for what we can do? These are the guidelines.’

Photo: Rubén Contreras

Can you share a challenge related to your job?

Multitasking (laughs). That’s a hard one! You gotta do like fifty things at the same time. It’s a physical job, too. You have a lot of heavy lifting, moving stuff around. But I think the hardest thing is always trying to be in a really good mindset. ‘Cause you can have your personal problems, but you’re dealing with customer service. We are putting ourselves more out there, and it’s unacceptable if we have any day that we’re kind of off and we are not overly friendly, right?

[For example], you are in pain; you hit your knee – you’re not in a super bubbly mood, and you still have to be super nice to people who come in, ‘cause this is a family. Everybody that comes in is a family. And you know everybody that comes in basically allows us to be here. That is something that you have to keep in mind everyday – be grateful for everybody that comes in through the door.

Check out Bruna paying it forward to another work neighbour of Paraiso South, Dollhouse Hair Boutique!

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