As what used to be ordinary errands become brave forays into a coronavirus-paralyzed world, online grocery stores have seen a huge uptick in orders. People with dietary restrictions may be especially challenged. “When you’re vegan, it’s so much harder to find some of the things you need,” said Ryan Wilson, co-owner of Wisconsin-based Vegan Essentials. He and his wife Courtney Ernster, who founded the mail-order grocery in 1997, have been working around the clock to keep up with demand. Here are some tips from Wilson on what to buy for a vegan pantry, where to get these items and why getting groceries might take longer than you expect.
What vegan pantry supplies to buy
The first instinct is to stock up on dry goods and pantry staples: flour, sugar, vegetable oil, rice, dried beans and lentils. Ground flax seed makes an easy egg replacement in baked goods, and perhaps grab as much shelf-stable soy milk as you can carry.
But Wilson surprisingly said people are ordering “anything and everything.” Even items that usually sit for a while are now flying off the shelves. “It is truly a period where no matter what we have, every single thing is going, whether it’s frozen meals, refrigerated products, dry goods, even dog food and treats are going out at faster paces than usual.”
What are Wilson and Ernster stacking in their own pantry? Turns out they’re thinking farther ahead and bringing home jerky, canned chili and heat-and-serve pouch meals. “Things that are easy if you want to tuck some extra stock on the shelf just in case there’s limited cooking abilities or anything of that sort,” Wilson explained. “Things that are just very easy to open up, grab, heat or just eat straight from the pack.” We’ve been avoiding thinking about grid failure, but he makes a good point. A can of chili won’t fail you like dried beans and rice will if you can’t turn on your stove.
A few sweets can be comforting at a time like this. Dates and dark chocolate have some nutrients and can be eaten on their own or baked into delicious treats.
Where to buy vegan food online
Like many people, the pandemic finally eroded my resistance to Amazon Prime, partly because of the free delivery from Whole Foods. Alas, I filled up my online shopping cart only to find out there were no delivery windows available.
This is a problem plaguing many grocery stores that deliver. As a warning, all of the stores in this section may let you down at times, as items continue to fly off shelves and stores remain understaffed.
In addition to retail giants like Amazon and Instacart, many more specialty businesses appeal to vegetarians, vegans and health-conscious individuals. Bob’s Red Mill, beloved purveyor of whole foods, is a superstar when it comes to grains, cereals, flours, mixes, beans and seeds. Bob’s Red Mill also has a dedicated gluten-free production line.
Vegan Essentials can fulfill your alternative meat and cheese needs, and this online grocery sells vegan treats such as white chocolate, caramels and snickerdoodle dessert hummus. It also stocks all the standard things a vegan household needs, from pantry staples to cleaners.
Coronavirus-related complications to supply and demand
When you’re ordering groceries during the pandemic, it helps to be patient and ready to substitute items. Vegan Essentials’ experience is probably typical of many online food businesses right now. “It went from being a normal volume we were very, very much able to handle to getting about three to five times our normal business almost overnight,” Wilson said. “Which of course is only exacerbated by the challenge of people being restricted and everybody kind of being stuck inside.”
Supply chains have mostly been reliable, Wilson said, but he has encountered some shortages. At the lowest point, he was placing orders and only receiving half of what he needed for his customers. “But it seems that right now we’re getting about 75 to 80% of what we need,” Wilson said. “I’m hoping in the next few weeks as companies start to ramp up production and things smooth out, I’m hoping we can get that back to having everything on hand all the time.”
There’s also the problem of quickly adding staff as demand soars. Vegan Essentials is relying on a network of family and friends who have suddenly lost their jobs. More than ever, trust among employees is paramount. Wilson said, “We try to keep self-contained where we kind of know everybody and everyone feels safe and doesn’t wonder, ‘Was that person going places they shouldn’t have gone?’”
Vegan Essentials is getting more international orders than it has had in the past, including from new customers in Australia, France, Japan, Germany, Sweden and Finland. “We haven’t heard specifically why people are looking to order from the USA more than just sticking with the usual places in Europe that can get things to them a little bit sooner. But it could just be that now that people are confined, they’re looking for a little extra variety to have something different on hand.”
Because grocers are essential businesses, the folks at Vegan Essentials will keep working to meet demand. “There’s not much else we can do right now but work and keep things moving,” Wilson said. “So we may as well just keep doing the best job we can.”