“It’s been insane,” says Paige Critchley. “We’re busier than I ever thought possible. We’re opening at 8.30am instead of 11am and closing much later in the evening to cope with demand. We’re even doing after-hours appointments!”
COVID-19 has been devastating for many Loudoun businesses but some – notably farm stores like Critchley’s rustic and homey Paige’s Pit Stop (www.paiges-pit-stop.business.site/) on Route 9 near Hamilton – are going gangbusters.
“A lot of people don’t want to go to big chains because of safety concerns, and often what they’re looking for in the big stores is already sold out or in short supply. That’s where we come in.”
Critchley opened her roadside shop in June 2018, selling fresh baked goods, fruit, vegetables, eggs, frozen meats and some ready-cooked meals such as pot pies, but since lockdown she’s expanded to carry regular household items too. Area residents looking for paper towels or toilet paper should stop by, and she’s also stocking baking essentials such as flour, yeast, sugar and salt.
Which is not to say the store hasn’t had to change how it operates. As an “essential service” Paige’s Pit Stop can accommodate 10 customers at a time, but Critchley has limited that to 3 to 5 people, made wipes and hand sanitizer available, and installed a plexiglass divide at checkout. To help stressed out neighborhood families looking for home-cooked meals she has invited food trucks onto the property such as Hog It Up BBQ, which is around daily, and Captain Pell’s Crabhouse which comes on weekends. All that and Hamilton winery Hunters Run (www.huntersrunwinebarn.com/) is around to sell their wine onsite.
Other farm operations are also doing surprisingly well. Spring House Farms’ (www.springhouse.farm/homepage) grass-fed beef and pork products are on fine dining menus throughout Virginia, but with restaurants limited to takeout, farmer Andrew Crush switched gears, ramping up online sale deliveries and in-store retail at his small Sterling and Hamilton stores. Ironically, the jewel box-sized outlets are ideally suited to the crisis.
“The Hamilton one is so small we couldn’t fit ten people in if we tried,” Crush grins. Assisting the owners in keeping the premises clean and safe seems to be a part of the community ethos: “We put a towel and bucket of bleach water on the porch and customers are wiping down the freezer door handles and the automated cash register themselves,” says Crush. What produce sells best during a pandemic? “Eggs, chicken, bacon and our grass-fed hamburgers and steaks,” he says. He adds that dairy lovers should come on Wednesdays or Thursdays – delivery day for South Mountain Creamery ice cream.
Over in eastern Loudoun meanwhile, EatLoco (www.eatloco.org/) founder and CEO Dan Hine had to make dramatic changes to keep his popular farmers markets at One Loudoun and Brambleton open, but after a few early snags they are up and running again and getting close to their usual number of customers.
“At first farmers markets were deemed unessential,” says Hine. “We managed to get that changed but in order to re-open we had to comply by a lot of new rules.”
Rules included “no browsing”, and customers are not allowed to touch any of the produce - two of the usual pleasures of a farmers’ market visit. Still, if it meant keeping his vendors in business Hine was happy to comply. “My main concern was the produce vendors we have who have to sell their fruit or vegetables before they spoil. That we have been allowed to open has been a life saver for them.”
Visit One Loudon Farmers Market on Saturdays or Brambleton Farmers Market on Sundays. Managers and interns are on site to move people through quickly while vendors in masks and gloves will pick out the fruit or veg for the customers. Small price to pay for being open.
From farm stores to farmers markets to farms themselves… Where would Loudon be in spring without fruit picking? Surprisingly, given strict social distancing rules, there are options here too.
Wegmeyer Farms, (www.wegmeyerfarms.com/) famous for their spring strawberry picking, have pioneered a staggered “pick your own” system at their three strawberry fields in the county. Customers reserve a place online, and a certain number of vehicles will be allowed onto the farm each hour. Pickers (who must all be from the same household) are then allocated their own row at 15-minute intervals to avoid getting too close to other pickers. “We will have hand washing stations with soap on sites, and payment is via a pole mounted credit card system,” says farmer Harriet Wegmeyer who has overseen the elaborate new protocol.
But what if visiting a farm or a farm store seems too risky? Well, the extra cautious can still get their agrarian fix in the age of COVID since the annual 2020 Loudoun Spring Farm Tours will still take place this year. The difference? They will be virtual tours.
Want more ways to #TakeLoudounHome?
Check out the Loudoun Made Loudoun Grown Marketplace