When ‘convenience’ becomes more like essential

Couple managing Sunoco have adjusted to life with coronavirus

BUCKHEAD RIDGE — At a time like this when something pretty scary happens, for some people, convenience becomes nothing to take for granted but, rather, as a near necessity.

The COVID-19 pandemic, with its unprecedented business shutdowns, stay-at-home and “Safer at Home” orders and health restrictions has presented just such a situation here, perched in the “boonies” just southwest of the Okeechobee commercial areas — and because of the kind of community it is.

Lake Okeechobee News/Chris Felker
BUCKHEAD RIDGE — Mina (left) and Hemant Darji report much lower sales of fuel and a jump in demand for necessities at their store.

The subdivision was started in the late 1960s and early ’70s as an affordable second-home residential area and Northern retiree community, and is populated mostly by older, less well-off retirees with a few dozen working-age families mixed in. Many of the houses are site-built with solid bones, but aging; some are in disrepair, some well-kept; and many mobile homes have been brought in on the smaller lots.

A few original residents are still around, having aged in place, now elderly and/or disabled. So having a couple of well-stocked stores nearby is important to all these residents.

A go-to kind of place
The Sunoco station at the northeast corner of State Road 78 and Hunter Road is one of the few in this area; it’s 6 miles to the nearest one closer to Okeechobee; 20-something to the nearest one in Lakeport. Like most 21st century service stations, “service” means something else now. This Sunoco has morphed to become part go-to store for staple necessities, part breakfast/lunch counter and part dependable cheap-fuel depot in the Okeechobee area. (It always seems to have the Gas Buddy app’s lowest price for unleaded regular on the coastal TV news.)

So it’s become indispensable to many locals who come on foot, by bicycle, golf cart or a quick car trip to get items they forgot on their last trip to town, some staple ingredient needed for a recipe-in-progress, forgotten soft drinks, a six-pack for a boat outing, a snack for the long drive home. The Sunoco is also a very easy stop for people traveling through, either way on SR 78.

The station/store is run by Mina and Hemant Darji, who manage it for their daughter Mira, the owner. She lives in New Jersey. And as the Sunoco has become an essential business for local people, it’s become a necessity for them to stay here and manage it well, too. Their livelihood — as well as their son Arjun’s future — depend on it.

Hours the same or longer
Asked how they’ve adjusted under the coronavirus-related restrictions, Mr. Darji said they have remained open their regular hours and even later some days. For them both, it’s 6 a.m. daily until 8:30 or 9:30 nightly, depending on circumstances. With the stay-home orders and despite the drop in gas prices, traffic and business have dropped off some, he said, “because there are not enough people going outside right now. Everybody’s staying home.”

What has changed dramatically is their daily regimen. Mrs. Darji is now constantly “cleaning everything like three times a day, wiping down all surfaces where food is prepared, counter tops,” all door and cooler door handles, etc.

Some days, especially when the weather’s been nice, “we have our rushes.”

They’ve seen interruptions in the supply chain on various items, particularly the necessities.

Often, Mr. Darji said, “I’ve got no toilet paper, no napkins, no bleach. They’re out of stock. Everything like that is being restricted by the suppliers.”

And with fewer people out and about, some days he ends up disposing of food products, just like farmers, because of reduced demand.

“I throw, a lot of times, my food in the garbage because it doesn’t sell.”

At least one of their overhead expenses has risen sharply, too.

“I’ve been wearing masks for like a month now, and gloves,” said Mrs. Darji. “And we try to keep the place as clean as possible.”

As a result they go through up to a box of gloves per day.

“I change every half-hour or so,” she said, “and he’s cooking. He has to change, every pizza he makes.”

But they’re doing more food items than just pizza now, for the past several months.

“We make cheeseburgers, chicken wings, egg sandwiches in the morning,” said Mr. Darji.

It’s just that they’re not seeing as many sportsmen types taking advantage of the few remaining cool days this spring in the year of COVID-19.

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