The Importance of Water

By John Tashiro, General Manager

In Vermont, we are lucky to have an abundance of fresh water sources. We’re perhaps most acutely aware of the importance of clean drinking water as temperatures rise and we welcome the sunny Summer weather. Having concluded our 12 month financial year just last month, I was about to begin reviewing our overall 2019 performance early last week when we learned about the City’s boil water advisory for parts of the South End neighborhood. Being without drinkable water for over 24 hours certainly posed a challenging situation to nearby residents, business owners, childcare providers and indeed to our store operations at the Co-op. Nothing is more fundamentally crucial to handling food than water – from preparing and cooking, to cleaning and storing, we simply cannot operate without clean water. Our decision on how to proceed in this situation ultimately came down to the safety and health of you, our Members, customers and staff. After swiftly and diligently assessing the situation, we decided to temporarily close the South End store until we could be certain the water was safe.

Fortunately, water quality test results received the next day showed no signs of contamination, and we were able to re-open on the Fourth of July. Since then, we have received many comments from Members and customers appreciating our decision to take such precautionary measures, while also being curious about what had happened behind the scenes. To offer some insight inside the inner workings of your Co-op at a challenging moment like this, I offer to you this recap.

Tuesday, July 2

On that sunny morning, a Drinking Water Warning was issued by the City of Burlington resulting from what they referenced as an “unplanned depressurization” of their water system that occurred on the previous evening in the South End. The affected area was fairly significant, including all the areas running east-to-west from Shelburne Road to Oakledge Park, and north-to-south from roughly Flynn Ave where our South End store is located, down to the Queen City Park area. The Vermont Department of Health had simultaneously issued a “Boil Water Advisory” for this same area due to potential E. coli concerns.

  • 9:30am – A senior manager of Operations sees the Drinking Water Warning from the City’s Department of Public Works website and further looks to other sources for verification, scale and potential impact. As a result, it quickly became clear that the Co-op and broader South End community would be unable to have access to a reliable source of clean and potable water.
  • 9:50am – The senior manager discusses the situation with the South End store manager. They subsequently contact our Head of Operations to further discuss and assess the situation.
  • 10:30am – The Head of Operation contacts the General Manager (GM) to share their assessment and recommendation to close the South End store.
  • 10:45am – GM concurs with the recommendation. This starts a process with the Senior Management Team (SMT) to go through a list of steps and communication internally and externally.
  • 11:00am – Announcement made for those Members and customers shopping in the South End about the imminent store closing. Staff kindly direct everyone to the registers for check out and safely exiting the store. South End store is now closed to the public.
  • 11:15am – The South End store manager assembles and notifies the store department managers about the situation and plans for a store closing. Steps are discussed, outlined and confirmed to communicate to the store general staff. Department managers work with general staff to conclude final cleaning and steps before leaving.
  • 11:40am – Head of Operations sends an internal memo to all staff in both Downtown and South End stores about the situation and South End store closing. This is also in preparation and anticipation of an increase in customer traffic directed from the South End to the Downtown store. Shortly after, GM informs Board Members about the situation and various communication posts and short-term plans.
  • 11:45am – Community Engagement Team (CE) develops communication via social media and other media channels informing the public about the South End store closing and offers refunds for any purchases made that morning out of an abundance of caution. CE also begins producing signage to be posted at store entrances and driveways.
  • 11:45am – The Purchasing and Merchandising Team (PMT) looks into farmer, vendor and supplier deliveries that were expected and communicates with them accordingly.
  • 12:30pm – General staff have left and department managers are wrapping up their administrative work for the day. GM and CE begin to receive media and press inquiries for comment and interviews, which are coordinated and scheduled into the early evening.
  • 1:00pm – SMT all meet in the South End store to discuss potential scenarios, considerations and plans for re-opening. Many things to consider from the impact of potential water contamination across store operations related to customer and staff safety, potential food waste, future staff scheduling, farmer and vendor deliveries, and product inventory. Recognizing the water quality test results from the City would only be available the following day with its arrival time unknown, we make a collective decision to at least keep the South End store closed the following day (July 3). SMT schedules a 9:30am check-in meeting the following morning to assess the situation and asks department managers to adjust their schedules to come in as well.
  • 3:00pm onwards – Communication sent internally and to the Board informing them of the decision to keep the South End store closed for July 3 with plans to update South End staff by 5:00pm on July 3 about plans for re-opening on July 4 onwards. On-site store signage as well as external communication via social media and other channels are updated shortly after with this new information.
  • 4:00pm – Direct emails sent to those Members who shopped in the South End that morning offering full refunds on purchases out of an abundance of caution.
  • 4:30pm – South End store is fully closed with alarms set. SMT continue with their work with some heading to the Downtown store, while others to other commitments.
  • 5:00pm and on-going – SMT, CE and GM continue to monitor status updates from the City as well as media and press coverage.

Wednesday, July 3

  • 9:30am – SMT check-in meeting begins in the South End store to assess our status. We receive an update from the City during our meeting and are relieved and excited to hear the good results confirming no concerns with water contamination. Department managers begin to prepare plans to re-open the South End store on July 4. Purchasing team assesses inventory levels and prepares replenishment plans for each department as needed.
  • 11:50am – All staff and Board Members are informed about the South End store re-opening plans for July 4.
  • 12:15pm – News about South End store re-opening posted publicly via social media, on-site store signage and other communication channels.
  • 12:30pm onwards – Many managers from the South End store head to the Downtown store to help with the additional customer traffic caused by the situation.

Thursday, July 4

  • 7:00am – The South End store successfully re-opens for regular business hours. Free coffee and tea is offered to all South End shoppers through signage and social media as a thank you for their extended patience.

During the approximately one and a half days that the South End store was closed, Members and customers were directed to the Downtown store, which experienced a trip down memory lane with the busier than usual parking lot and higher customer traffic. Our managers in the South End went to help the Downtown staff during this time, especially with it being a holiday weekend. I am truly grateful to see our staff’s cooperative spirit and willingness to rise to the occasion. They consistently look at ways to best to support each other with great dedication, calmness and a can-do positive attitude.

We would like to thank our customers and neighbors for their understanding and patience during the boil water notice. The decision to close was not easy and done only out of an abundance of caution. We also continue to appreciate the City’s partnership and support recognizing the challenges that come with addressing the aging infrastructure for the safety of our community and staff. Now that things are back to normal, we look forward to seeing you under sunny blue skies over the summer at the Co-op!