Winter Storm Preparation and Holiday Shopping Collide at Chicago Grocery Stores: ‘Crazier Than Expected’

The weather forecast could put a kink in the plans of those who prefer to do last-minute holiday shopping. 

Heavy snow and winds are on the way, speeding up the usual hustle-and-bustle timeline. It’s a wintry mix: Blizzard-like conditions, just ahead of Christmas and during Hanukkah.

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The double whammy caused crowded parking lots and long aisles at grocery stores on Wednesday as folks stocked up.

Derek  Luszcz, co-owner of Gene’s Sausage Shop in Lincoln Square, said he’d been so busy, he hadn’t paid attention to the forecast until Tuesday when he started getting calls from customers looking to change their orders.

After about 20 of them called, he asked a woman her reasoning.

“And she goes, ‘Well didn’t you know it’s going to snow on Thursday?’ and I go ‘Didn’t you know we live in Chicago? And it snows?’ And she goes ‘Well I’m from Florida.’ And I said ‘Well I’m sorry about that,’” Luszcz said.

Some folks are picking their orders up early, while others canceled outright.

But the dropped orders have been replaced by new ones.

“What I think is happening is that maybe some people are staying back home for the holidays, not taking that trip that they were planning on, and now need some food,” he said.

Luszcz said the shop is open through Saturday afternoon no matter the conditions, selling prime rib that’s been dry aging since Thanksgiving and other specialties.

Yolanda Luszcz, Derek’s sister and co-owner, rattles some off. 

“Our homemade smoked sausages that we make here ourselves – nobody else does that. Our prepared foods: our potato pancakes, blintzes, eight different varieties of pierogi, herring that’s made by hand – meaning, like, the homestyle, creamy, in wine, dill … We’ve got aquavit, caraway liqueur, all of those egg liqueurs that you can’t find anywhere else, imported from Europe,” she said.

She’s responsible for ordering all the grocery and deli items, plus the booze.

Shipping issues during the pandemic shifted the timeline for getting that stocked for the holidays.

“We used to have to order our items coming in from overseas July 1, and last year we had to get in all of our orders by March 1. So as soon as you finish recovering from the holidays here, you start to get into it again – start ordering your items to make sure that you get them,” Yolanda Luszcz said.

That early ordering has an upside: There’s no worry that travel hazards will delay shipments of items they need on the shelves for Christmas.

Rather, Yolanda Luszcz says the biggest issue lately is having enough staff to process, package, stock shelves and check out.

She said the staff at Gene’s are dedicated, and rolled with the punches as the coming snow storm led to late shift changes this week.

“We really heavied up for Friday and Saturday and now we’ve kind of reeled that back in, and getting more people for today and tomorrow. Because I assume if there really is a storm as they’re predicting, it will be a little bit slower those two days because it’ll be difficult to travel,” she said. “Traditionally, this entire week is very crazy and now chaotic, but today’s a little bit more crazier than expected.”

Gene’s was non-stop Wednesday and parking in Lincoln Square was hard to come by, but it was little bother for Heidi Romero, who secured two hours of parking she could use to shop at Gene’s for knackwurst, bratwurst and sauerkraut her family will enjoy over Christmas for a traditional German meal.

“We’re doing some shopping. German food shopping,” she said. “I’m not concerned about the weather. I’m coming here one way or the other.”

James Herbick, meanwhile, had his eye on the forecast as he included Gene’s among his daily errands.

He was picking up cheese, meat, salad and “maybe a bottle of wine” — important provisions to have on hand if the weather keeps him shut in the next few days as he’s planning.

Herbick said earlier, he’d filled the fuel tank of his Jeep and even early in the morning the gas station was also crowded.

For employees, the rush – whether the weather is bad or not – makes for long days.

Derek Luszcz pulled an 18-hour day on Tuesday, arriving at the shop at 4:30 a.m. on Wednesday with all of the switch orders and couldn’t predict when at night he’d be able to leave.

Gene’s always closes early the day before Christmas, and Yolanda Luszcz said she’ll spend the holiday drinking eggnog fireside.

But she said they’ll be back at it Monday, for out-of-town customers who make it a tradition to visit Gene’s after Christmas. 

Follow Amanda Vinicky on Twitter: @AmandaVinicky

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