United Front: Inspired by Taiwan’s fight against COVID-19, United Noodles uses assertive tactics

Guards at check-out registers are just one of the precautions deployed at United Noodles // Photo Courtesy of United Noodles

When you’re fighting an invisible enemy, it helps to have a battle plan.

For owner Eric Fung and the staff at the United Noodles Asian grocery store in Minneapolis, the successful fight against the COVID-19 pandemic in Taiwan has been both a blueprint and an inspiration, and has led to some of the most aggressive tactics against the disease among grocery stores in the state.

In February, when COVID-19 was just beginning to disturb routines in the United States, Fung was on a business trip in Taiwan. He was given a dramatic glimpse into a future where day-to-day life—including shopping and cooking—was transformed by efforts to combat the disease.

This immediately accelerated the store’s efforts, says United Noodles Chief Compliance Officer Jennifer Maguire. “[Eric] was in Taiwan real-time [for the epidemic] as it was taking a lot of extra measures,” says Maguire, who was brought on board in mid-March to help steer the store’s COVID-19 committee and help to contain the disease. “Pretty much immediately he wanted our store to reflect those measures.” Weekly meetings and a committee that includes cashiers, warehouse managers, and a chef have maintained urgency and helped the store evolve its approach.

Covid-19 signage at United Noodles // Photo Courtesy of United Noodles

One Disease, Many Approaches

Grocery stores are one of the last remaining types of places where members of the general public mingle; they’re full of hard surfaces that could potentially harbor the virus; and they’re staffed by employees who need to interact with dozens (or hundreds) of people over the course of a typical shift.

The City of Minneapolis has put out extensive information about the spread of the disease and how it can be slowed down or stopped, including conducting a series of in-store educational visits in mid- and late March.

But, while the city has provided information on best practices, its educational efforts to slow the spread of coronavirus at stores lack enforcement teeth. It’s been left to individual stores such to develop and implement their own policies and procedures, which has lead to a variety of different outcomes—including stores with employees with improperly-worn masks (or none at all), some without clearly spaced checkout areas or sneeze guards, and all manner of signs, from the effective to the spartan.

If you entered a store and people were crowded together without adequate measures to separate them, there isn’t a legal remedy; there’s no SWAT team equivalent poised to deploy tape, sneeze guards, and masks, or shut down an unsafe store. Instead, the city is counting on economic necessity and public vigilance to spur stores to adapt. And if a store doesn’t adapt?

“My sense is that people would not continue to visit that store,” says Cindy Weckwerth. Weckwerth is the director of Environmental Health for the city of Minneapolis, and is among those officials responsible for keeping members of the public and the food industry informed about ways to slow the spread of COVID-19.

“People want to make sure they feel safe going to the grocery stores,” she says, suggesting that there is a strong commercial interest for stores in adhering to disease-fighting best practices. “The grocery stores are responding to that.”

Untied Noodles began requiring masks starting May 4, 2020, and has been providing masks for their employees as well // Photo Courtesy of United Noodles

Technology Versus Biology

Much of what United Noodles has implemented resembles what is taking place at other area stores, particularly the area’s co-ops, many of which moved quickly and systematically to minimize the risk of transmission. But in other respects, its actions stand out.

Firstly, it pushed in mid-March (early to institute a mandatory mask policy for employees) and recommended masks for customers.

United Noodles’ in-store posting for Covid-19 awareness // Photo Courtesy of United Noodle

“Wearing masks was one of the biggest things that the community [in Taiwan] was doing to prevent [the spread of COVID-19],” says United Noodles Chief Operating Officer Adam Wilson. “In Asian culture, wearing masks is a little bit more normal when individuals are sick,” he adds. “So we decided we wanted to get our staff together and get them on the same page. We bought some paper masks, they weren’t N95s. While it was clear that N95s best protect against spread, the CDC was recommending that people avoid purchasing N95 masks to preserve them for the medical community. So we purchased KN95 masks for our employees, a mask similar to N95 masks in that it is capable of filtering out the virus particle. We also donated 100 KN95 masks to North Memorial Clinic.”

On Saturdays, United Noodles hosts a mask-sewing demonstration that offers visitors a chance to learn how to sew masks, or order them from the clothier teaching the demonstration.

In further displays of caution, the store continues to reserve the first hour of shopping time on weekends for the elderly and immunosuppressed, and on Monday, May 4, 2020, they began requiring customers to wear masks inside the store and instituted a one-shopper-per-household policy, with certain exceptions for disabled or elderly customers. If a customer does not have a mask, they provide single masks for purchase inside.

This week instituted a one-shopper-per-household policy to limit the number of bodies in the store at a time. The store has also ordered a piece of equipment that is in regular use in Asia, but virtually unknown in the United States: a contactless system that takes the temperatures of customers as they enter the store.

“It scans the bare skin of incoming customers’ foreheads and it gives you a temperature reading instantly,” says Maguire. “If it’s over the safe amount, then we’re notified and that person is not allowed in the store. That’s what they do in Taiwan, and that’s what we’ll do here when that equipment arrives.”