“We’re not going back”: Success of curbside pickup at West Side Market spurs talk of other changes

By Lee Chilcote

Change doesn’t happen quickly at Cleveland’s West Side Market, where vendors and city officials have been wrangling for years about whether the city-run institution should be overseen by a dedicated nonprofit. Yet during the Covid-19 crisis, the city and vendors came together quickly to roll out curbside pickup, and now it may offer a model for moving forward as the market seeks to adjust to a new post-pandemic reality. 

Customers can now call ahead their orders and pick them up on Lorain Avenue.  They can also pick them up at the stands, and some vendors are offering delivery. They say the experiment has been a success so far.

“We are having record weeks,” says Don Whitaker of D.W. Whitaker Meats and president of the West Side Market Tenants Association. “Traffic is down, but people are calling ahead. The meat guys with the staples are doing very well. For stands like bakeries with specialty items, it’s tougher.”

Ward 15 councilman Kerry McCormack, who represents downtown, Ohio City and parts of the near west side, says curbside pickup is a good example of the city and vendors coming together to be proactive about the market’s future, but more is needed. 

“Now is a good time to take a new look at how things function and operate,” he says. “We’ve been talking for years. We need to double down on that. After Covid-19 is under control, how do we innovate and support the market?”

Fast-tracking change

When Ohio’s stay-at-home order was issued, grocery stores were often crowded with shoppers stocking up on basic items like meat, fruit, dairy and bread. Yet some customers thought the West Side Market was closed, even though it too was deemed an essential business.

“Unlike grocery stores, the market did not see a huge uptick in traffic when the coronavirus hit,” explains Ward 3 Councilman Kerry McCormack, who represents downtown, Ohio City and parts of the near west side. “The vendors were talking curbside pickup already, and so the city and the vendors fast-tracked it.”

Vendors and the city put together a plan for call-ahead ordering and pickup in mid-March and got the word out to the community through their website, press releases and social media. Local media began covering it, and the service has grown steadily in popularity.

The city has also implemented new social distancing guidelines at the market and suspended rent through June to help closed or struggling businesses there. They’ve put up signs indicating entrances and exits, hired more security, and set occupancy limits.

Some vendors have also put up clear plastic barriers around their stands to separate themselves from customers. Many are also wearing masks, but it’s not a requirement.

Plenty of product

The past few Saturdays have been busier, but waiting times are minimal and Whitaker stresses that most meat vendors have plenty of product available. That’s because meat shortages haven’t really spiked at the market yet.

Many vendors source their meat from Ohio farms and don’t rely on the same supply chains as grocery stores, which are having issues because of Covid-19 outbreaks at meatpacking plants. Images on social media of empty meat aisles at the grocery stores are helping drive traffic to the market, where cases are stocked, says Whitaker.

“With all this talk of a meat shortage, people went into panic mode,” he says. “Orders are exploding. We’ve got three phone lines going, and I’m still clearing voicemails.”

Whitaker says he and other meat vendors are not getting as much product from their suppliers because of the current situation, but they’re still able to meet demand.

“We are getting shorted, but we are getting it, especially compared to the supermarkets,” he says. “I’m above capacity today. But some days, I just can’t keep up.”

Still kinda old school

When Whitaker introduced a new online ordering system on his website a few weeks ago, he was immediately overwhelmed by orders and had to shut it down. He’s since brought it back, and says it’s working fine.

“The online site was something I’d been putting off and putting off, and it took a pandemic to get me to finally do it,” he says.

Yet despite the fact that online grocery ordering has surged during the pandemic, his stand is still one of the few places where you can order online. His story suggests there’s unmet demand, but it also offers a cautionary tale

According to recent article in Grocery Dive, 31 percent of U.S. households, or roughly 40 million, have used online grocery services like home delivery and pickup over the past month. That’s 2–3 times what it was a couple years ago. Many are new customers, especially baby boomers who didn’t shop online previously but have now embraced it as a way to avoid going in stores.

For the West Side Market to compete in the forever-changed world of Covid-19, vendors here are probably going to have to offer online ordering and delivery, too.

The market website promotes call-ahead ordering and pickup and touts it on social media, but most vendors don’t have websites. Whitaker says the tenants would like to implement group online ordering, but right now they’re just trying to adjust to the new normal.

Conflicts with the city 

The market was suffering from a high vacancy rate even before the pandemic, and many stands remain closed. Whitaker says he hasn’t heard of any vendors closing permanently, but it remains to be seen if they’ll all come back.

While he praises the city for its response, he also says more is needed to promote curbside pickup. “You gotta keep on ‘em,” he says. “They’re still the city. It was kind of haphazardly thrown together, and we need more wayfinding signage.”

Tensions have been running high ever since a social media post by Michael Turczyk of Turczyk’s Meats went viral in December. In the post, Turczyk called out the Jackson administration for maintaining “deplorable conditions” while raising the rent on vendors. He also said that he was closing his stand. Several other longtime vendors also closed around that time.

The city responded with a press release citing $5.3 million in capital improvements in the past five years, announcing $5.5 million in planned improvements, and saying it was going to hire a consultant to study future changes, including the best management structure for the market.

The city did not respond to interview requests for this story, other than providing information about social distancing procedures, but Whitaker confirmed that the city is moving forward with hiring a consultant, and says he hopes the current crisis leads to bigger changes. 

“I just talked to someone who is on the short list, and that was good news to hear,” he says. “I didn’t know with Covid if things would get held up.”

McCormack has pushed the idea of a nonprofit entity running the market for years, something Mayor Jackson has opposed, and now sees a window during the current crisis to begin looking at not just who runs the market but also issues such as vendor mix, maintenance, and seating areas to attract more customers.

“It’s a good thing, but it’s a piece of a larger solution we should bring to the market,” he says of curbside pickup.

He adds that the city’s quick response shows what’s possible, and hopes it opens the door to more changes. 

“We need to bring in an efficient management system that only thinks about the market, not a division of the city. The market, in terms of its raw potential and grandeur, is one of the best in the country.”

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