During the COVID-19 pandemic open businesses have been limited to essential business only as a result of an executive order Governor Eric Holcomb signed on March 23 in order to help slow transmission of COVID-19.

Brookville's hometown IGA store is a cornerstone in the community and offers residents a local shopping experience of quality items without driving to a nearby town like Batesville or Harrison. Since 2008, Joe Jester has owned the Brookville IGA and fully recognizes the importance of his essential business.

“Part of the reason I buy little independent stores is because I know they are the lifeblood and heartbeat of the community,” Jester said. “People are going to feed their family; they are going to do whatever it takes to feed their family and if they have to leave town to get food they will.”

Jester, believing in the importance of keeping business local, recently bought his competitor Save-A-Lot, located next door to IGA in 2018. Jester explained a lot of people questioned that decision, but his goal in purchasing the other competition was to keep everyone local.

“The more people I can hold in town with different offerings the better it is for the town of Brookville. I want to keep people from having to go to Hamilton or Connersville to shop. When people leave town to buy groceries, they take their restaurant business, hair cutting business, gasoline business out of town. So, a healthy town needs a healthy grocery store.”

Franklin County residents are in good hands when it comes to an owner that is knowledgeable on the grocery business. Jester has not only owned IGA since 2008 but was an advisor for the previous business owners since 1991. Save- A- Lot was purchased in 2018. If there is one thing Jester knows, it is grocery stores.

However, in all the years Jester has been in business, finding a comparison to a past time like the current is tough.

“The closest thing this is like is a blizzard,” Jester said. “The difference between a blizzard and this though, is there is no end. A blizzard comes and then it stops; this we saw increased business for 10 days.”

Jester and his team have a good grasp on what the store needs, and according to Jester, since Friday things are back to normal, at least for now.

“I think everyone bought two to three more groceries than they needed not knowing what the future held for them,” Jester explained.

Overall, Jester expects a 15 to 20 percent increase when things settle back down.

The other good news is Jester says the supply chain is catching up. There is still some limited availability on things like toilet paper, hand sanitizer and Clorox wipes, but other items that are limited at grocery stores, like meat, is a non-issue at IGA. Jester explained larger corporations like Kroger only have one meat supplier, hence when they run out, they are out until the supplier stocks back up. Jester, on the other hand, operates with five or six different meat suppliers, so they were able to never run out of meats while other stores faced shortages.

The biggest struggle for Jester currently is getting the jobs that need to be done with less people.

“For very legitimate reasons, people are taking off,” Jester said. “Retired people that are working this as a part time job need to be concerned for themselves, so they take off. Others have relatives that they live with that have compromised immune systems, so those employees take off because they don't want to bring home anything to their family.”

At Brookville they are trying to do the same job as they normally do, but with seven fewer people. Fortunately, no employees have been confirmed to have the COVID-19 virus, but extra hands are still needed to keep up. Jester is actively hiring during this time, which has increased his workload. He is also communicating much more than ever before with his stores.

“Every hour and every day is changing,” Jester said. “What was true yesterday may not be true today. I have five stores and I want everyone to be on the same page during this time. Communication is key.”

Even with a shortage of employees, Jester said that his employees are going above and beyond to keep everyone safe. Employees are washing their hands more than ever and doing extra cleaning around both Brookville stores to keep them sanitized. Jester is following all guidelines put out by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and Indiana State Health Department (ISDH).

Regardless of safety measures in place, Jester still encourages his customers to take precautions when grocery shopping.

“I tell everyone they need to look after their own individual welfare,” Jester explained. “They (customers) need to wash their hands, wear gloves and keep their distance from other customers. If you think no one is sick at the grocery store, you shouldn’t assume that.”

Another benefit to a small independent grocery store is one Jester pointed out.

“At a larger place you have ten times more customers in the store, so you are ten times more likely to get those germs.”

Currently Jester has been able to maintain regular hours at IGA and Save-A-Lot even with a lack of employees, and will continue to do so as long as he has the manpower to accomplish that. He did acknowledge that people seem to be taking social distancing seriously though, and by 7 p.m. there is very little business in the store.

Jester also encouraged elderly citizens to come early in the day to help limit their exposure to others. According to Jester, there is virtually no one in either store the first hour they are open. Jester recommended shopping from 7 to 8 a.m. at IGA and from 8 to 9 a.m. at Save-A-Lot.

Delivering groceries is also an option for those that can't get out right now, but delivery isn't a new thing. Jester and the staff at IGA have always delivered to elderly that are in need. At Fairbrook Manor, deliveries are currently being made and employees are leaving the groceries on the front stoop for safety.

Jester has maintained a positive attitude despite the increased workload and genuinely seems most interested in taking care of the people in a community he is proud of.

“There are such nice people in Brookville,” Jester said. “It is a very special community and we will get through this. The community has been kind, understanding and patient.”