E.W. Thomas Thrives During Uncertain Times

By Page H. Gifford

Among area small businesses, E.W. Thomas has been a survivor throughout the decades and an anchor during these unsettled times. The coronavirus has had a negative impact on small businesses across the U.S. but Beth Thomas and her family are counting their blessings and looking forward to a more positive outcome.

 “My hours have been much longer than usual during this time of the unknowns. My husband and sister work with me in the business, but because of health concerns, they have been working very early hours when there are no customers in the store.  They have kept things going, and without them, life would have been even more challenging.  But, it has been my shift during business hours, so this old woman is pooped,” said Thomas. She echoes the same claim made by many business owners who are essential to communities and are trying to protect workers, follow the Center for Disease Control and state guidelines. Keeping customers healthy and safe is not easy.

“Our business has been one of the lucky ones to be considered essential,” Thomas said. “When mid-March came and schools were closed, and other businesses had to lock the doors, we were as busy as days of severe blizzard warnings; milk, bread, toilet paper, and other staples flew off the shelf, along with beans, rice, flour, and yeast. We had two weeks of extreme business, with little time to prepare and react.”  She says her dedicated staff put in long hard hours and teenagers without daily obligations filled in on the unexpected busy days. They were able to keep all of their staff employed with no layoffs or furloughs and allowed some that chose to stay at home to take that option. “I think most realized they were the ones that had jobs, and were thankful.”

After the first of April, business leveled off to a manageable pace, she said. She added that the recent concern regarding meat shortages contributed to recent busy days at the store.

“We have been fortunate to be able to source supplies from several suppliers. There are some out of stocks, and beef price increases, but we still have burger.” Her sister Linda added that when they could no longer buy hand sanitizer from their usual sources, they became creative and sourced it from Virginia distilleries that were producing sanitizer.

“It is my understanding, our store was one of the first to require masks and facial coverings to enter our business. To be honest, I was hesitant, concerned about how it would affect business.  And then friends and family bombarded me with safety concerns for our employees. It is difficult for us to work six feet apart, but we can certainly wear a simple mask to help protect us, she said. They also marked lines on the floor at the registers, deli, lottery. and DMV counter as a reminder for social distancing. “We knew it wasn’t the only answer, but it was simple, obtainable one and a symbol to the public that we were doing what we could to carry on business in a safe manner.”

E.W. Thomas closed Sundays to have a day for crews to come in and sterilize and clean. They sprayed down each basket and cart and tried to continue that throughout the day as customers used them. They sprayed doors and handles throughout the store and continue to do that every day. They even brought in a portable toilet for customers to use to help keep bathrooms for employees only. They also brought in a sanitation sink at the front door for customers to use on the way in and out.

They required masks and have given out hundreds to customers. “My guess is well over 3,000 at this point.  Many many were made by friends and neighbors and given to us.  Others we have bought as we can find them.”

Besides the store being busier than usual, their small, well-kept  DMV counter has tripled in customers.

“For the first several weeks of the pandemic, our DMV was one of five open in the state, the only one open on Saturdays and there was nothing open east of us.  Even though the governor and DMV extended registration deadlines when people buy a car, they want plates and they want to drive it,” she said. “So they found us and were willing to start lining up at 6:30 in the morning to wait for a place in line.” They now have someone at the front door handing out numbers to DMV patrons. This allows them to control the number of people in the store.

“It has been a challenge, but most people are grateful to be able to get their business done, and we have been thanked more than cursed.” She adds they had customers from Roanoke, Abingdon, Newport News, and Virginia Beach, and all in between, she said. The DMV is no longer Palmyra’s well-kept secret.

“The community as a whole has responded as I would have expected.  Your friends are your friends in good, bad, and uncertain times.  We have been able to take care of them and they have shared with us” Beside thanks and appreciation, there have been cupcakes and brownies, many have brought them masks to wear and share. Several times Thomas posted on Facebook that their supply of masks was dwindling, and within hours, more masks appeared.

“We have had new customers, especially when they heard we were re-stocked with paper products, bread, and Lysol spray.  We hope we can keep new faces. That would be a positive point in this uncertain time.” Besides being tired, Thomas says she is grateful. “I can’t imagine having to lock the door, tell 40 employees there is no work, and disappoint friends and neighbors that depend on us daily.”

Thomas says they will continue to follow the guidelines to keep their employees and customers safe.  “We think it is important to keep a second wave away.”

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