On Saturday morning, Eddie, 61, was on his knees in the pasta aisle of Gristedes in Manhattan’s West Village, moving a new shipment of jarred tomato sauce onto shelves.
A supply truck—the second in three days—had just replenished the grocery store’s stock of items selling out all over the city. “It’s spaghetti sauce, toilet paper, water, paper towels, rice, beans,” he said, ticking them off from memory. “Frozen vegetables, canned tomatoes, canned soup—all the Progresso was sold out.”
Since U.S. public panic over the coronavirus has escalated in the past week or so, “every day’s stressful,” Eddie said.
A few aisles away, Herb—who splits his time between Gristedes and a Stop & Shop in the Bronx—stocked the cleaning aisle. The stuff selling out fastest, he said, is unsurprising: “toilet paper, hand sanitizers, wipes.”
But the items that have lingered? “No one’s buying jelly, but the peanut butter is sold out,” said Herb, with a laugh. I asked if he thought they were making peanut butter–only sandwiches, with all the bread missing from the nearby shelves. “I couldn’t imagine,” he said, shaking his head.
Also in stock in droves were canned sliced beets, a stack of lasagna noodles marooned on an empty noodle shelf, several tiers of Martinelli’s sparkling apple cider, chips of many flavors, gefilte fish, whole-wheat burger buns, kidney beans, non-organic eggs, multiple types of boxed cake mix (except for the funfetti, which was gone), and pudding and jello in flavors spanning citrus, faux-fruit, and chocolate. As promised, the jelly section was thriving.
Back in the pasta aisle, Eddie, who has been employed by the West Village Gristedes for 30 years (“half my lifetime”), recalled his past encounters with New Yorkers panic-shopping for groceries. He’s seen shelf-stable items, like beans, fly from the store in a similar fashion in advance of snowstorms, and especially during the blackout that befell downtown Manhattan in 2012 at the peak of Hurricane Sandy.
But panic-buying then was “not this bad—Sandy would come in second, and snowstorms would come in last,” Eddie said.
At the Trader Joe’s a little ways down Seventh Avenue, “Keto Fudge Bites” were totally wiped out, but the Organic Sparkling Yerba Mate that lives just below it was stocked in full force.
Bell peppers in every shade were rampant, while only five sweet potatoes endured, strewn forlornly across an empty produce shelf as if just washed ashore. Piles and piles of Roma tomatoes waited patiently to meet their new owners, while below their shelf, an entire ledge of Kumato Brown Tomatoes had been bare for who knows how long. Boneless, skinless chicken breasts were nowhere to be seen, while bone-in pork cuts and filet mignons dawdled hopefully.
Over in the freezer aisle, a stack of frozen raw red shrimp from Argentina towered so theatrically, I worried it might collapse into the next section over, which itself was empty but for a single remaining package of frozen swordfish steaks. I watched from the prepared meals section as a lone shopper paused in front of shrimp mountain, reached for a bag, perused its contents with one arched eyebrow, then placed the shrimp back in the freezer with a sigh and sauntered off.
On her Instagram story, Man Repeller founder Leandra Cohen—a top-notch critic of grocery-adjacent topics—narrated her own visit to a Manhattan food store by way of hand-drawn arrows and language that might’ve seemed cryptic to someone reading it a hundred years ago. “Regular granola gone, but gluten free still v much avail,” she wrote, from the cereal aisle. “Beet and kale chips still in tact,” and “Regular buttered popcorn: gone. Skinny pop standing strong tho,” she reported from the snack shelves. And pasta, she declared, was “OOO.”
So why are New Yorkers turning to some stable goods, like pasta and canned tomatoes, while completely neglecting others (pistachios still-in-shells have nudged me to mention them, for example)? What did spaghetti squash or jelly ever do to us?
Part of it is cost, to be sure—show me one person bulk-buying those Trader Joe’s filet mignons and I’ll show you how hard I can work for a dinner invite—and some of it’s got to be chalked up to versatility (name 10 ways you can use a jar of jelly in one day, I dare you).
A Trader Joe’s customer named Zach seemed to think it was all a bit of a crapshoot: “There were a lot of frozen cauliflower pizza crusts left,” which was a surprise. “Especially around here,” he said, motioning toward the produce section, where a woman in a floor-length fur coat was squeezing blood oranges contemplatively, “that seems like something people would go for.”
When I asked if he bought any of the crusts, Zach said: “I did not.”
Six hours later, back at Gristedes, where toilet paper was now sold out, Eddie was still restocking the pasta aisle. I asked him why New Yorkers amass large stores of rice, beans, and pasta in times of uncertainty, before, say, frozen shrimp.
He said, with a smile, “Because they’re easy to make!” And, because “beans are full of protein,” and some people find pasta comforting. But in Eddie’s book, the best comfort food of all is a pint of Häagen-Dazs.
“Coffee, chocolate, and vanilla,” he said. “In that order.”
For those with resources at this time, please consider donating to your local food pantry (like Food Bank for New York City) and organizations like No Kid Hungry, and avoid overbuying, which creates availability issues for other families with near-term budgetary constraints.