In the Face of Food Deserts and COVID-19, Katsiroubas Bros. Delivers Hope Katsiroubas Bros. has helped communities around the Boston area during the pandemic, making fresh food available for all.

I

n the days leading up to March 15, Torry Stamm, BC ’03, was on edge. She had been keeping an eye on the status of essential businesses in Boston as the coronavirus impacted her and her business’s routine more and more. Her food distribution sales had dropped slightly—it was nothing to get too worked up about, she said to herself. Then, on the evening of March 15, Governor Charlie Baker announced a statewide shutdown of all bars and restaurants.

Alongside her brother, Ted Katsiroubas, Stamm had been working at Katsiroubas Bros., a wholesale fruit and produce distributor based in Hyde Park, for 15 years. In the face of COVID-19, Katsiroubas and Stamm have changed the way they run their business. The two have been distributing boxes of fresh food to people interested in purchasing them around the Boston area, as well as bringing produce into food deserts around them.

The two of them had taken over the family business after their father was diagnosed with ALS. The pair had been building on the foundation he laid, growing upon his business practices and establishing a large distributing company. But on March 15, they saw a huge drop in orders, as their customers—predominantly restaurants—panicked and canceled them.

“We had already had billions of dollars of perishable products in the warehouse, along with tractor trailers that were coming in from California,” Stamm said. “So it literally was, you know, an 80 percent drop overnight with no sense of recovery and this massive perishable inventory that we had to move.”

Katsiroubas Bros., established in 1914, began as a convenience store opened by Stamm’s great grandfather. When he passed the business to Stamm’s grandfather, it remained modest—her grandmother kept the books while her grandfather operated two trucks and delivered groceries from the small store. After attending business school, Stamm’s father took over and grew the business to the size it is now, she said. 

After the mandate that restaurants and bars would be shut down almost immediately, Stamm acted quickly to figure out what to do with the massive amount of food she now had on her hands. She flipped the supply chain and sent the food back to the New England produce center, where a lot of grocery stores purchase food from. At the time, stores around the area were overwhelmed by the amount of people stocking up on food, Stamm explained.

As the dust settled, Stamm was left to face a daunting reality. With most of her traditional customer base gone, she had to find a new way to keep the family business, which had been around for more than 100 years, afloat.

Stamm’s brother Katsiroubas had worked with Fresh Truck, a company in the Boston area that worked to bring fresh food and ingredients to people in food deserts—areas where fresh food is harder to come by. Katsiroubas Bros. already had an existing relationship with the company, as they had been selling Fresh Truck food at wholesale prices for years. With this in mind, Stamm came up with Katsiroubas Bros. produce boxes. 

Even before the impact of the pandemic, Stamm had a goal to make fresh food more available in poorer areas. Now, with the pandemic making it even harder to come by, she set off to create a system in which people could buy fresh ingredients at a more affordable price, without even having to step foot in a grocery store. These boxes were priced at $25, but had $40 to $60 worth of fresh food in them. Using their partnership with Fresh Truck, Katsiroubas Bros. began delivering these boxes to areas where people could use food stamps to purchase them.

Katsiroubas, who has worked closely with Fresh Truck for a few years, believes the partnership benefitted both parties.

“I think it’s been a two-way street,” he said. “In the future, I’ll feel like Fresh Truck helped Katsiroubas more than we were helping [them.] They gave us a light or hope of some work we were able to continue to do. They gave us a platform and an opportunity to keep our people working and to continue to do our job.”

She didn’t stop there. After an initial casual post on social media— “does anyone in my town want me to deliver these boxes to them?”— she started driving the produce boxes herself to customers that wanted to avoid entering a grocery store.

At first, she delivered about 15 boxes a day, as that was all she could manage by herself. She switched her model to a pickup system where people would drive by and she’d put the boxes in their cars. In the first week, Katisroubas had 100 orders.

“The second week, I think I had 300,” she said. “The police stopped me because we were causing a traffic jam. So [we got a] permit to go to one of the schools that was obviously shut down, and I had my husband build, with a friend of his, an e-commerce site, because I couldn’t process the invoices fast enough.”

A

s business ramped up in May, Stamm was receiving around 800 orders a week. She operates five curbside non-contact pickup sites in the Boston area. The feedback from her customers has been great, she said.

“People are used to buying produce at grocery stores,” she said. “They don’t realize what the produce is like if it’s not been touched all day, and it’s in a temperature control—that’s what makes the integrity of products not as good when it’s sitting out in a grocery store.”

Though Stamm has managed to find a new channel to keep Katsiroubas Bros. alive, the impact of the pandemic on her business has been jarring, she said. The hardest part was having to go into protection mode and lay off workers.

“To say that I can’t have you with me on the boat, you know, rowing together through this was unbelievably difficult and definitely the hardest professional thing I’ve ever had to deal with,” she said. “To have to go to work every day and hold your head when people are wearing your service uniform … you know that name is mine. That’s my family name. And then to turn them away because you don’t have work was beyond the worst part.”

The best part, she said, was being able to bring workers back. As orders increased in the month of may, she was been able to hire back around half of the workers that were initially laid off. What gets her through the days is making plans to bring all of her staff back, she said.

As for Katsiroubas, he looks to his coworkers, especially the truck drivers and workers in the warehouse, in admiration, he explains.

“I think one of the nice things is that there has been more acknowledgment of the people who are doing the essential work more so now than ever,” he said. “I hope that my co-workers look back on that and are proud that they are able to continue to perform and continue with their jobs in these circumstances. … Now is a time to celebrate some of the behind-the-scenes people.”

Stamm’s roots are in the Boston area. She grew up in Needham, attended Boston College, and took over the family business a few years after graduating. To give back to the community in this time, she said, is a privilege.

“The spotlight is on that community feeling right now,” she said. “It’s just so nice to not be frustrated in my home where I can’t do anything. I’m doing more now to help the community than absolutely ever. The need is just so high, and I’ve just been able to say yes when anything comes our way.”

print

About Maeve Reilly