While Austin shelters in place during the COVID-19 crisis, Mutchler finds new appreciation for his job at a local grocery store.

By Cecily Sailer

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** Note to Readers: The name of John’s employer is intentionally excluded from this profile in observance of the company’s media restrictions. **

John Mutchler began working for a national grocery chain more than eight years ago, when he returned home to Washington, D.C., to help his family through a difficult time. “It was the first real job I had as an adult,” he says. 

When John moved back to Texas, he transferred to one of the company’s Austin locations, where he’s worked ever since, making wine suggestions, stocking shelves, directing customers. It’s where he met his partner, Melissa, four years ago. They now live in Lockhart, 30 miles southeast of Austin, where they bought their first home last year.

Things were humming along nicely until a few weeks ago, when the COVID-19 crisis brought life to a strange standstill. Melissa, who owns a custom embroidery business, saw her income vanish overnight, as people diverted their dollars to toilet paper and other staples. 

John’s two side-gigs also flatlined. He typically moonlights as a food-tour guide, but now restaurants are closed, and tourism seems like a quaint memory. His band, The Golden Roses, also saw their busy spring schedule vaporize in a matter of days. 

John’s position at the grocery store, however, isn’t going anywhere, at least for the knowable future. Grocers are one of few businesses allowed to operate under the city’s new shelter-in-place order, which took effect Tuesday. With a few coworkers staying home to protect themselves and an uptick in business, John says he’s picked up a few additional hours here and there.

“I’m really pushing myself to go in with a positive attitude and keep that sense of normalcy,” he says. “I’ve always loved my job, but I appreciate it more now that I’ve realized it’s a service and a way for us to give something to people who are feeling insecure about everything.”

As for his own sense of security at work, John says his store, like many others, is constantly updating safety protocols to protect shoppers and employees from unwittingly spreading the coronavirus. 

In the past few days, the store has closed every other register to avoid crowding, customers must stand away from check-out stations, only five people can enter for every five who exit, and there’s a limit on item quantities per customer. But John says he’s made a few small exceptions.

photographs by Jim Tuttle

“We know a lot of these customers by name,” he says, “so I know, for example, that Sally has six kids. I’m not gonna tell her she can’t buy four cartons of eggs. But people have been really respectful, and everyone seems to be getting what they need.”

Two weeks ago, such a scene in a grocery store would have been unimaginable, but John says customers are adjusting well to the changes, even if they’re still a bit on-edge. “You can see the anxiety on everyone’s faces and in the way they act,” he says, but shoppers also seem more open to chit-chat and warm hellos. “The customers I know are looking forward to that interaction. The new customers, or those who normally keep to themselves, they’re more open to those interactions now.”

While John and Melissa are stressed about the financial impact of this crisis, John says it’s been a test of their resolve as they strategize their way through it. While he carries that stress with him to work, he says “it’s a good distraction to go and put that positive attitude out there and get it back from other people too my coworkers and my customers.”