Panic buying comes to town, as people prepare to hunker down at home

Store parking lots are jammed. People are lining up to get inside. Some shelves are empty, while there are ample supplies of most goods. Everyone seems to be shopping.

Trader Joe’s in Oakland was crowded Saturday, March 14, as people stocked up on food. Photo: Frances Dinkelspiel

Trader Joe’s on College Avenue in Oakland got so crowded Saturday morning that managers started to limit entrance. A TJ’s employee wearing a bright red raincoat stood by the sliding glass entrance doors to guarantee that no more than 250 people were in the store at once — the limit that California set Thursday.

Inside, long lines snaked through the aisles. The wait to reach a cash register was about 15 minutes. Many people’s carts were stacked to the brim with cereal, frozen pizza, pasta, canned goods and wine. Lots of wine.

Around the Bay Area, the threat of the spread of coronavirus has prompted people to rush to supermarkets and drugstores to stock up on staples. They are driven by the fear that supplies might dry up — or that they will be quarantined at home with no way to refresh grocery supplies.

While parking lots are full and wait times extensive, the food supply chain seems intact, according to informal interviews with managers at local stores. One Trader Joe’s manager said the store has been busy all week but there has been no problem keeping most items in stock. (Bread and paper goods were on short supply Saturday, though.) A manager at the Safeway at College and Claremont avenues said the same thing. The only item they can’t find is hand sanitizer, she said. Both managers are not being named because they do not have the authorization to speak to the press.

The situation is fluid, however, and may change. The Washington Post reported Saturday that suppliers see a conflict between keeping staples coming and protecting their employees from COVID-19.

“Food producers and supply chain managers say there is generally enough nonperishable food on shelves, in warehouses and on the production line to last several months, but the challenge could soon be getting that food to the right places once local distribution centers are wiped out,” the Post reported. “Industry officials acknowledge some uncertainty about how exactly they will be able to replenish their stocks if factories and ports worldwide are short-staffed.”

Susan Ito, who lives in Oakland, waited until 10 p.m. Friday to go grocery shopping. She had tried earlier in the day only to find it was tough to get parking.

The rush to buy supplies has had an unintentional levity — it has shown the world which items are popular and which are not. It turns out chickpea pasta, chocolate hummus, vegan food and Dasani water aren’t the first things consumers turn to for comfort, according to Slate.

The mood in Trader Joe’s on Saturday morning was upbeat, as strangers swapped tales of how they were coping with social distancing and preparing to have their children unexpectedly at home due to school closures. At one point, a man shouted his appreciation for all the people working the cash registers at an accelerated pace. That prompted dozens in line to clap their hands and cheer.


Updates: Several markets announced schedule and capacity changes due to the recent uptick in business. Berkeley Bowl is now open 10 a.m.-7 p.m., Monday through Sunday for “additional cleaning and stocking.” All Trader Joe’s locations have shortened daily hours to 9 a.m.-7 p.m. Market Hall Foods is limiting the number of customers allowed into its stores at a time: 18 adults at Rockridge Market Hall, 6 adults at Hapuku Fish Shop and Marin Sun Farms, 10 adults at Market Hall Produce and 15 adults at Berkeley Market Hall. Berkeley Natural Grocery is open 10 a.m.-6 p.m. until further notice.

After publication, Berkeleyside readers on Facebook shared their suggestions for local grocery options that have (mostly) worked out for them.

  • “Berkeley Bowl west was packed Wednesday afternoon at 3pm. It took 40 minutes to get through the checkout line. Grateful and also worried for all the cashiers that interact closely with hundreds of people every day.” -Taryn Smith
  • “Went to the Bowl yesterday, where there were Thanksgiving-like lines. Walked right out again.” -Julie Wong
  • “May I humbly suggest your local small market? We stocked up at Mi Tierra on San Pablo with no problems.” -Sarah Lefton
  • “Try Vik’s in West Berkeley. All the ingredients for weeks of curries and no crowds ( as of this Wednesday).” -Suzanne Carter
  • “Meanwhile the Farmers’ Market on Center Street was nice and calm as usual, no big crowds, and LOTS of fresh produce.” -Rod Lamkey
  • A reader using the handle onesmallhand on Twitter also said “small gems” like Berkeley Organic Market (College and Ashby) and Star Grocery on Claremont “were well-stocked when I was there last.”

Have more tips? Let us know.

Frances Dinkelspiel is co-founder and executive editor of Berkeleyside. Email: frances@berkeleyside.com.