In the last six months, Laurie Semon and Erin O’Hagan have been busy adjusting to the new normal.
Their store, Olives Gourmet Grocer, has become the epitome of what is now considered an essential business, not only with what they sell at their store, but also with the sense of community they offer to their staff and guests.
Throughout the 16 years that Olives Gourmet Grocer has been serving the Belmont Heights community, it has grown and adjusted to meet demand. What started as a grocery store morphed into a business that did it all. They offered hot food, a long sandwich menu, freshly made pizza, specialty grocery items, a catering business and opened a restaurant next door.
Their restaurant, Taste, had been open for five years and offered farm-to-table food. But Semon and O’Hagen decided to close the restaurant after struggling to keep up with the constantly-changing health regulations and realizing that the food did not do well in the take-out format.
They said that they needed to focus on what was working, which was the grocery store.
As food shortages were occurring throughout the city, Semon and O’Hagan noticed that their customers changed the way they shopped. Customers no longer wanted to go to large grocery stores to buy their food, so Olives Gourmet Grocer had to find a way to meet their needs.
“We had to pivot really fast,” O’Hagan said. “The first three months was just nonstop responding to [customers’ requests].”
Semon and O’Hagen removed the self-serve bars and added more produce and pantry staples. At first, they began selling the produce they used to make the deli items, but they eventually began stocking those items for customers. Flour was another high-demand product, so Semon and O’Hagen began selling that as well.
“We’re filling that niche,” Semon said. “The more we respond [to customer requests], the more they come back.”
In a way, the pandemic has allowed Olives Gourmet Grocer to return to its original form as a gourmet grocery store. They are offering their community an alternative to big-box stores and in turn, the community pays them back with gratitude.
“We’ll be walking down the street, and some of the customers are like, ‘Oh my god, we just love what you’ve done with the store,’” Semon said. “And that just lets us know that what we’ve done was the right thing.”
The store manager, Gracie Kennedy, has been working at the store for over 13 years. Because of her age and health issues, she had to stop working when the coronavirus pandemic started. But after not working for a period of time, Kennedy reached out to Semon asking to go back to work.
“She came, and she said, ‘Laurie, I need to work because the customers feed me. And I need that energy,’” Semon said.
After discussing it with her doctor and working with Semon and O’Hagen to create a safe work environment, Kennedy went back to work.
Kennedy said that the support she has received from the Olives Gourmet Grocer community has made all the difference.
“It’s an honor to have people who want to know your name,” Kennedy said. “Like I said, it’s family. You treat them like you would treat your family, you know? And it works because I get something from it, they get something from it. It’s a cool experience.”
Looking forward, Semon and O’Hagan are confident that they will continue to provide that service.
”I think there’s so much more still ahead of us. We’ve gotten to this place. If this got us here,” O’Hagan said, “What else can we do in those four walls?” Semon finished.
This story was originally published in Long Beach After as “Redefining ‘Essential Business.’”