By Kathleen Wyatt on Jun 10, 2020
Bonka Sazdova, Sofia, Bulgaria
Bonka Sazdova works at the fresh food counter of a Shell service station in Sofia, the capital of Bulgaria. She has been there two years. Her colleagues say she has a gift for dealing with customers, but during lockdown it was another skill that made her stand out: sign language.
She first learnt sign language as a child so she could communicate with her parents, who both have difficulty hearing. Since then, she has volunteered as an interpreter in her community – and has also done some work translating the television news live.
When Bulgaria went into emergency lockdown on March 13th, her service station closed the fresh food counter due to national restrictions. Soon after, she was invited to work regularly on the national news, interpreting for the Health Ministry and occasionally, the Prime Minister himself. Suddenly, she was appearing on television two or three times a week and her skills were helping to communicate vital health advice to the nation. “My colleagues and family are very proud and happy for me,” she says.
“But I missed my colleagues, customers and the dynamic work. The kitchen on site, this is my special space,” she says. A lot changed while she was away. The service station became more like a small supermarket. “Customers started to look for new things like sausages, pasta, tomato sauce, flour – things that are needed for home cooking,” says Sazdova. “Now there are new ways to work… behind a plastic screen, only a few people in the store at once, using contactless payments. There are also new cleaning routines and new products.” In the future, the site will keep selling groceries if that is what customers want.
There may be new ways of working and new products, but her colleagues say one thing will not change. They call it Sazdova’s “daily positive energy”.
Cora Nacional, Cebu City, Visayas region, the Philippines
Cora Nacional has worked at the Cebu City service station on Cebu Island in the Philippines for three years. When lockdown began on March 25th in Cebu City, she was soon missing her carefree life when she could jump into a local “jeepney” bus to get to work or take her young daughter out whenever she wanted. She missed her friends and family, but says: “Thankfully, I had the company of my second family. My workmates from our station.”
During the stricter quarantine measures, she had to take extra time to do everything safely. She walked to the site, wore personal protective equipment and made sure she kept her hands and work surfaces sanitised. Customers wanted to be in and out quickly, so the site introduced supplies they would have to queue for elsewhere. These included fruit, vegetables, extra tinned goods, eggs and noodles.
Nacional says that she will forever cherish the positive response from her customers. “They specifically appreciated that the fruits and veggies were covered with air-tight plastic. They said it made it quicker, more convenient and made them feel safer than picking bare items from the wet market.” Wet markets in the Philippines sell everything from meat and fish to vegetables and fruit.
She holds up a well-wrapped melon. “Even though it is at times hard… being able to serve in my own little way at this time of pandemic, gives me an unexplainable feeling of fulfilment.” What about the future? “The best thing to do now is adjust, adapt and move forward so we can still serve our customers and help the Cebu community win this fight.”
Lisa Kinning, Portsmouth, UK
“Thank you doesn’t begin to cover it.” This is one of the many comments posted on Lisa Kinning’s Facebook group. She and her brother Kevin Hooker run service stations in Hampshire along the A3 motorway between London and Portsmouth, a city on England’s south coast. They have always played a part in the community, but during COVID-19, they wanted to do more.
“We grew up here. I remember when the service stations were being built,” says Kinning. “My dad took us both to a bridge to watch as a car drove down the A3 for the first time.” Her brother first started working weekends 18 years ago at their local site in Liphook. Soon they were both working there. Now, along with two partners, they run 12 Shell sites, including the two at Liphook, either side of the A3.
Things changed fast during lockdown, which began in the UK on March 23rd. “First, it got quieter for fuel sales,” says Hooker. “Then more and more people started filling up their baskets. And it wasn’t their usual fizzy drinks and chocolates. It was fresh fruit, flour, antibacterial soap… even compost. Their habits changed completely.”
When the phones started to ring all day with people looking for supplies, they started a Facebook group for the Liphook area. “Within a day, we had 100 members,” says Kinning. One lady who contacted them was distraught because her young nephew had a temperature and she could not find Calpol, a brand of liquid paracetamol.
“We didn’t have any in stock, so we rang round until we found it.” One of the Liphook team volunteered to collect it from a site about 30 kilometres away. “When the customer came to pick it up at Liphook, she just burst into tears,” says Hooker.
“In this environment,” says Kinning, “it’s everyone showing how much they care. There’s a new respect for people.”
Hooker says customer habits “flipped round again” when the UK began to ease the lockdown. “We’re starting to get our lorry drivers back. Hot food has picked up again.”
Whatever changes in the future, they hope they will keep their new grocery customers.
Kinning says: “A lot of people tell us ‘we come here now. We know you’re here. It’s more convenient. And we feel safe here.’ ”