Bob’s Country Corner owners recall “chaos” of early pandemic days – and how they kept their business going
Editor’s note: While the pandemic has impacted everyone, photographer Brianna Caldwell is interested in finding out how local small businesses—who rely on in-person transactions and relationships—have managed to pivot their business models and operational strategies in order to safely and sustainably keep their businesses afloat over the past year.
Bob’s Country Corner, located on the Alameda in Menlo Park, is the first in a series of interviews on this topic. The store is owned by Nadia Wehab and run jointly with her children: Issa, Amal, Natalie, and David Wehab.
Brianna: Your business has always thrived—and been centered—on in-person patronage. What was among your first thoughts or concerns at the onset of the pandemic?
Issa: Prior to the Shelter in Place Order, there was so much ambiguity. We couldn’t determine whether the media was under or over playing magnitude of the virus. As things continued to worsen on the East Coast, we caught wind that there would be a full lock down in California. We tried to figure out whether we could temporarily survive without the store. Alternatively, if we remained open, whether we could keep our family and customers safe. None of us had faith in the government helping us financially if we shut down.
Brianna: Was there a point at which you reached a realization that you needed to do business differently in order to adapt to the restrictions and risks that came with operating an essential business during such an impossible time?
Issa: David was the first to voice real concern about in-store safety. He wanted to limit store capacity with the intention of protecting our Mom. We started enforcing the use of masks in late February and immediately got backfire from customers; most thought we were crazy, there was a lot of contention. We did our best to convey a message of well-intentioned safety, but it was a real struggle.
The mask mandate by San Mateo County that shortly followed really helped us with that struggle. This was a positive turning point, but the fear was ever-present. We began to notice every cough, every sneeze, every sniffle, and our anxiety levels exploded. We didn’t want to shame anyone, but we knew we had to foster an environment of safety. Even still, arguments with customers not wanting to wear masks persisted.
In March of 2020, David took it upon himself to enforce social distance measures and barricade us using plexiglass from Home Depot. We had a close friend of the family at Douglas Construction custom build the plexi-shield. The mandate to do so followed.
Brianna: What has been the toughest challenge for your family in keeping your business operating as sustainably as possible?
Issa: The toughest challenge was finding consistent stock for the store, and providing essential goods for the elderly. The first days of the SIP were met with a crazy increase in sales. People bought anything in the store. Normally, this would be celebrated, but it was terrifying seeing the fear and panic everyone was exuding. Immediately following the announcement of SIP, we woke up at 4:00 am to get to wholesale early.
The chaos that morning was unimaginable. The wholesale in Brisbane had a crowd in the parking lot filled with business owners. The moment the doors opened it was like a scene from an apocalyptic movie. Rushing for milk, eggs, pasta, water, people fighting, people taking from carts that were not their own. I ran into my Uncle Eddie who owns Holloway Market inside the dairy section; he saw me at the entrance and tried to hand me cases of any kind of milk of any size. He turned around and the milk from his cart was gone! It was absolute mayhem. When we finally made it out and had the truck loaded I couldn’t even hold back tears. I locked myself in the bathroom and cried so my wife and Mom wouldn’t see me.
Brianna: Were there times that you felt scared to be so exposed to people at the frequency that’s required in this industry?
Issa: Our collective greatest fear is my Mom getting exposed. The fear of anyone I love in my life contracting this virus keeps me up at night but often I’m always thinking of others and forget about myself. Deep down I guess I’ve been naïve and feel I’d probably survive Covid but after seeing the number of deaths, it’s just not realistic to think that way. After my Dad and Uncle passed from cancer, so much is riding on us, and if just one of us gets sick, and God forbid succumbs to this virus, it would absolutely crush us beyond healing. We’ve already been through so much after losing two amazing human beings.
Brianna: In what ways have you drawn support from each other in the face of having to work so much harder towards keeping your community safe but served?
Issa: We all worked as a team using every tool in our toolbox to keep the store stocked. My wife and I would wake up and would be out the door before the wholesales opened to restock the essentials. We utilized our relationships with different warehouses to get shipment notification via text so we could have a fighting chance to buy literally anything. We’d sometimes do multiple trips a day to multiple locations.
We also heavily utilized our Instagram account to update our followers almost hourly when essentials came in. I relied on my childhood friend Mario Halteh who now runs Kael Food Distribution in Burlingame (taking over for his dad). When milk and eggs were impossible to find, he supplied us with 10 times our normal orders since his usual clients (hotels and restaurants) were canceling orders. A good number of our customer base is made up of elderly and at risk people so I volunteered to safely hand deliver food and allocate our limited essentials to these customers. We received so much love from the community and that alone was the most gratifying experience.
Brianna: Bob, the late founder of Bob’s Country Corner and husband/father of this family, seems to be a huge part of the culture here. Has his spirit inspired the decisions you’ve made in light of this pandemic?
Issa: My Dad’s story and journey is really inspiring; a story of an immigrant coming with nothing but stopping at nothing to survive and succeed. His core values of helping others, treating all customers like family and uplifting the community all came from his own experiences. My Mom often starts a sentence with “if your dad was still here…” I feel we all filter our decisions through a Bob lens. His core values of helping others, treating all customers like family and uplifting the community has been our foundation throughout these trying times.
Brianna: What inspires you the most about other small businesses in this little corner of the world?
Issa: What I hold so close to my heart is how much I admire all the small business owners and staff in our area. Almost every local business has helped me at some point in time. It’s a true testament to how genuine and how loving this community is. It’s also a quality I really appreciated about my Dad. I recall a time around high school when a customer spoke poorly about a nearby small business and my Dad immediately defended, promoted, and encouraged that customer to give them another chance. He gave them the owner’s number and said “ask for this person, order this on the menu, and tell them Bob sent you.” That experience is still the most influential lesson I have ever learned.
If you’re a small business that has reinvented itself, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org and tell us your story.
Photos by Brianna Caldwell (c) 2021