By Jed Lanyon
If there is one positive to take away from the Covid-19 pandemic, it’s those in our community who have lent their support to others going through a tough time. The team at Mount Evelyn Supa IGA, led by owner Tony Ingpen, have been no exception as they continue to support others in the community.
Over a year ago I left the supermarket to start my career as a journalist with Star Mail. Upon leaving my first job of seven years, I was assured by Tony that I would always be welcomed back to IGA with open arms if I ever needed employment.
As the Coronavirus pandemic placed a financial strain on many local businesses, I was temporarily stood down from my position with Star Mail in March. Tony’s words stuck true as I was offered my old job back alongside a host of new employees, who were put in a similar position and were acquired to help IGA cope with the community’s increased reliance on supermarkets.
“In a two week period we employed 15 people,” Mr Ingpen said. “A lot of them had been put out of their normal job … Some of them will hang around if their job doesn’t open up and some of them may go back to their normal lives and say ‘Thanks Tony’ and I thank them for what they have done.”
Mr Ingpen turned to ex-employees first, then to the friends and family of his employees in search of work as well as those from local businesses.
One IGA staff member, Lotus Fakatava, was the kitchen hand at the nearby Heart and Soul Coffee Lounge until the cafe could no longer sustain his employment. Cafe owner Shirley reached out to Mr Ingpen and he was quickly brought in by IGA to continue working.
“I was really happy that she would do something like that,” Lotus said. “I came in and one of the first things Tony said was, ‘when can you start?’. There was a lot of uncertainty in the air but it meant a lot to hear from him that he was so on board with it early.
“I didn’t really expect to land a job elsewhere or anything.”
While supermarkets across Australia are putting on extra staff to cope with increased customer demands, Mr Ingpen’s community support doesn’t just come in a time of a global pandemic.
In 2016, Mount Evelyn IGA took on several staff members of Seville’s IGA who were facing unemployment when the Entwistle family were forced to close their doors after operating for three generations.
“Barry (Entwistle) is a good friend of mine … He pretty much lost everything. He came to me and said, ‘I’ve got some really good people, could you take some?’ I always need good people.”
“So as a favour to Barry and I suppose a way of getting a surplus of good people, I put six people on,” Mr Ingpen said.
Seville’s staff were welcomed to make the transition to the Mount Evelyn supermarket at a time where there was no increased demand to put on extra staff. While most of the original Seville IGA employees have moved on, a few still remain at Mount Evelyn to this day.
Mr Ingpen spoke to Star Mail on 13 May, the first day of Victoria’s slow roll-back on lockdown regulations. He anticipated a “little spike” in shopping activity as Victorians can now have up to five visitors in their household.
“It will be interesting, I expect that there will be quite a lot of households who will be entertaining for the first time in about three months.”
Mr Ingpen said the ability for independent supermarkets to manually order stock and adjust the need for products to each individual order allowed stores to quickly adapt and understand changing shopping habits, opposed to the automatic ordering systems which assign stock to larger supermarket chains like Coles and Woolworths.
“That was the first pebble rolling down the mountain that caused an avalanche.
“It really should have been avoided, but their automatic ordering systems, and the lack of monitoring of those automatic ordering systems started with toilet rolls, then tissues, paper towels and whole aisles out of stock.
“Then the closure of the borders created a run on all of the food. They actually ran out of food for two days and it was the independent industry that fed the country for three days and then we were all trying to scamper to play catch up.”
As Victoria plans to slowly reopen again, Mr Ingpen will attempt to stay ahead of the curve when it comes to servicing the needs of Mount Evelyn residents.
“We’re travelling really well. We’ve still got some holes on our shelves but we’ve got more staff and bigger orders. While customers are slightly up, it’s the basket size that’s up as more people are eating at home.”