Tarig Mohamed can’t remember the last time he closed his corner store for the day.

The Phoenix Market, which he manages, has been a staple of the Dayton’s Bluff neighborhood in St. Paul for years. But Mohamed has considered limiting the market’s hours and worries that he might have to temporarily close due to bare shelves or safety concerns for his employees as the coronavirus pandemic sweeps the Twin Cities.

“I want to keep this stocked because this is a neighborhood store,” Mohamed said. “They need us to keep it open. … They said they have gone to other stores and it is empty.”

Corner stores, gas station convenience stores, bodegas, and pharmacies have remained critical sources of food, medicine and suddenly scarce household goods like toilet paper even as Minnesota officials have urged people to stay home to curtail the spread of the virus. But shop owners have had to struggle to keep their shelves stocked and have had to put their own health at risk as they serve numerous customers in tight quarters.

“Here we cannot work from home like others,” said Mohamed, as he donned plastic gloves to ring up a customer. His shop at 3rd Street and Maria Avenue, which replaced a food market on the corner destroyed in a deadly natural gas explosion nearly 30 years ago, has seen a steady stream of customers even with fewer regulars popping in on their way to the bus stop.

Mohamed, who many in the neighborhood call “Talli,” has had to call numerous distributors to hunt down basic products like eggs. Dealers told him this week they weren’t sure when they could deliver more single rolls of toilet paper to the store. Earlier, he ran out of bread and dispatched a friend to buy 20 loaves at a Sam’s Club. A delivery worker warned him he may not receive gallons of whole milk due to a shortage. As of Wednesday, he was out of hand sanitizer and couldn’t get bananas.

“I’ve never seen this. Never,” Mohamed said.

The corner stores in Twin Cities’ urban neighborhoods, which often service lower-income and racially diverse populations, have become even more of a lifeline in the past few days carrying the basic necessities residents require within walking distance of their homes. Nearly four of 10 customers use them at least once daily, according to a University of Minnesota report published in 2017.

“I come every day,” said Christina Adyaka as she grabbed a soda and chips Wednesday at the Phoenix Market.

She said she has stopped at the store for tissue paper, soda, onions and other products.

“He develops a friendship with everybody,” Adyaka said of Mohamed. “I come here because it’s faster, more convenient than going to the grocery store.”

Like supermarkets and grocery stores, bodegas and corner stores have seen a spike in sales during the initial outbreak of the virus, said Jamie Pfuhl, president of the Minnesota Grocers Association, which represents some convenience stores and markets.

“We’re finding out … that the grocery industry space is something that is taken for granted,” she said. “Especially when you have limited transportation, when you have a crisis like this, having that opportunity there is as important as every stop you’re making.”

A few minutes walk from the Phoenix Market, Henry Garnica, who owns CentroMex Supermercado on the corner of 7th and Arcade streets with his wife, Rosa, has had to put a customer purchase limit on basic items. People have rushed to buy tortilla flour, eggs, beans, rice, and cold medicine. Garnica said he is afraid his out-of-state suppliers will begin to ship him fewer products.

“I would like to offer for all people to buy things because we don’t know what’s going to happen,” he said.

Garnica is concerned about the health risk to his employees.

On a busy weekday as customers with carts packed aisles and waited to get medicine, several CentroMex employees wore face masks as they restocked shelves and rang customers up. Rosa Garnica vigorously wiped down the conveyor belt near the cashiers.

Most of CentroMex’s customers are Latino and come to the store for the specialty meat counter, produce, medicine, and cultural delicacies that they may not be able to find at other stores.

“They have meats that we typically can’t find at Cub Foods,” said Gabriele Carmona, 25, who visited the store with her cousin late last week to stock up on tortillas, vegetables and sliced steak.

Garnica and his wife usually work 14-to-15 hour days. He said he didn’t know what would happen to his business if he needed to close for an extended period of time.

“We need to pay bills,” said Garnica, who is originally from Colombia. “We need to pay taxes. We need to pay everything.”

Food stores have been deemed essential and allowed to stay open in Minnesota even after Gov. Tim Walz’s recent executive order. In the wake of the virus, officials in Minneapolis have encouraged grocery stores, including corner stores and gas stations, to maintain “excellent personal hygiene and social distancing,” limit face-to-face interaction and clean surfaces frequently.

Cinco de Mayo Mercado, a small Latino market near E. 38th Street and Nicollet Avenue in Minneapolis, is cleaning in the morning and night, mopping its floors and having its cashiers use gloves. The store has had a flurry of new customers, buying rice, tortillas and beans, as well as its prepared foods and bread, said general manager Rosa Markey.

The store has had difficulty getting products from distributors, especially staples such as grains and canned food. Markey has found it easier to buy food in bulk and divide it into smaller packages themselves — or sell the bulk products instead.

“We order things with different companies but they’re not bringing them,” Markey said. “There’s too much demand.”

Cinco de Mayo remains open seven days a week. It hasn’t had to lay anyone off, Markey said — there’s too much work to do. She is hopeful the situation will calm down in the next two weeks.

“This is one of the things you can’t live without: something to eat,” she said. “People can’t live without groceries. We’ve kept selling food, making food. That’s how it has stayed.”


Twitter: @nicolenorfleet