Fairfield community appreciates The Pantry

By Jarret Liotta

FAIRFIELD — Inconvenience and emotions are just two of the unwelcome byproducts of the COVID-19 crisis, but at least one longtime local business has sought to assuage fears and frustrations and — in the process — discovered new ways to flourish.

The Pantry, an 18-year mainstay and essential operation downtown on the Post Road, is one of the rare businesses that has added staff members this season as it continues to discover ways to reinvent itself and meet changing community needs.

“We were definitely more of a catering and prepared food business with specialty food items,” explained co-owner Kirsten Guldbrandsen, “but now we’ve become kind of a one-time essential food and grocery stop for people.”

Andrew Rolleri, who opened the store with third co-owner Thierry Le Meur, said the sense that they’re operating a literal community hub has been impressed upon him these last 10 weeks like never before.

“Our customers have rallied around us and have let us know how important we were in being here for them during this crisis,” he said. “That sentiment had been expressed over and over to me in phone conversations and in person.”

“We’re definitely more of a grocery store now,” Le Meur said.

While the crisis wreaked havoc with their salad bar and, to a lesser extent, their deli counter, other positives have come about as the store continues to reinvent itself.

“We learned how to make pancake mix,” Rolleri said, with other dry goods now being packaged for individual sale.

“The bakery is just spectacular,” said Susan Rogers of Fairfield, noting they’ve done special gluten-free orders for her family, including her daughter’s wedding cake.

“I’ve been coming here since probably they opened and everything is just good,” she said.

Curbside was also a key new addition, and while numbers have begun dropping since more people are getting comfortable coming into the store, Guldbrandsen said it looks like it might be something they retain. Customers appear to be finding favor with it in many cases, in part because sometimes it’s hard to park in the small lot.

“A lot of people are leaving gratuities with their curbside orders,” said Paul Zawadski, general manager, “and that’s being spread to all employees. Everybody gets a piece of it because they’re all part of the team.”

“Thank you for working,” one customer, Kathy Lotty of Fairfield, told the staff at checkout recently.

“They’re doing such a wonderful service,” she said, “and putting themselves on the line here. They’re essential workers and they’re awesome.”

While some workers expressed reticence in returning to work as the pandemic began, The Pantry owners chose not to do forced layoffs and instead have “repurposed” some of their staff to meet changing needs.

“That was something we put out there immediately,” Guldbrandsen said. “You’re not going to lose your job.”

“I don’t want to say we’re a family business,” she said, “because that’s a little cliché, but we want to treat people with respect.”

“They’re all so nice, the most friendly people ever,” said customer Christin Meehan of Fairfield. “They’re always willing to help.”

“The staff has been incredible,” Rolleri said. “We have a lot of really dedicated people.”

So instead of layoffs there are new faces, including a security guard in the front of the building to confirm that people are wearing masks.

“You come in here and you feel the world is right,” said longtime customer Katie Morris of Fairfield. “Everything is fully stocked and all your comfort foods are here.”

She praised the accommodating staff, noting that even though the masks make them a little less recognizable, they’re still the same familiar faces she knows and appreciates.

“I just feel like the world has shut down, but The Pantry has not,” she said.