Best Cigar Prices CEO Greg Fox said part of the company's mantra is “to treat employees with respect, recognize and reward them, listen to them and, most of all, set them up for success in a safe and enjoyable environment.” When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, the company proved just how important that mantra is by focusing on keeping employees safe and taking a proactive approach to implementing serious safety measures, including providing more than 100 meals a day, six days a week for employees and their families and offering free personal protective equipment.
Although Fox was forced to furlough 33 of the 86 full- and part-time employees that work at Best Cigar Prices and its Best Cigar Pub restaurant, he retained the head chef and has been offering the free meals to all active employees and their families every Monday through Saturday since mid-March.
The initiative began on March 16 when Best Cigar Pub was forced close and the company began offering free lunches to affected employees. On March 23, the company expanded its free meal program to Best Cigar Prices staff so employees wouldn't have to leave the building to get something to eat. A week later, Fox announced he was adding free dinners for all active staff, including those working remotely, and their entire families. Also, the company began giving masks to all remote employees to use if they had to leave their houses in addition to the masks that in-house employees were given at the company's facility in the CAN DO Corporate Center in Drums.
Fox said, “We know this is a stressful time for our staff and their families and we wanted to make it a little safer and easier for them by providing free meals. This way they don’t have to worry about risking going out to the grocery store, they can save some money, and maybe spend more quality time with each other rather than stressing over what to cook for dinner tonight. Our chef has loved doing this and it keeps him where he wants to be, in the kitchen.”
On March 12, Fox sent out the first of what has become almost weekly updates to employees about COVID-19 and the proactive approach the company was taking to keep employees safe, including relaxing the company's attendance points system and encouraging employees to stay at home if they weren't feeling well, ramping up cleaning, sanitizing all hard surfaces (including doorknobs, door handles and faucets), detailing how to properly wear masks and clean your hands, and providing basic COVID-19 and company updates.
Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the company had 64 full-time employees and 22 part-time workers, including 55 employees on the e-commerce side and 31 restaurant workers. Although Best Cigar Prices' facility was already designed where employees were spaced apart, the company instituted several stringent safety guidelines and proactive measures. On April 8, the company started taking the temperature of every employee before they entered the building and requiring them to wear masks. These measures occurred 11 days before the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania ordered everyone to wear masks and several weeks before the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommended temperature checks.
Fox said, “As a former winner of the Greater Hazleton Chamber of Commerce Small Business of the Year award, our real secret sauce is our people, our staff. They are amazing in every way. Our fabulous morale hasn't skipped a beat throughout all of this. As part of our mantra to reward our employees, we have always recognized birthdays and anniversaries and we have continued to do that throughout this time by sending the gifts via mail to our remote workers.”
CAN DO Chairman Bill Magnotta thanked Best Cigar Prices for its diligence and commitment to its employees
during the pandemic. “When we recruited this company, we believed it would be a good community partner and they have exceeded our expectations.”
On March 16, PA Governor Tom Wolf put statewide mitigation efforts into place for businesses and individuals. Within a week, Best Cigar Prices implemented several safety measures to keep employees and the public safe, including banning any visitors from entering the building, propping open doors throughout the facility to limit surface contact for employees, closing the retail store and beginning a free shipping policy for Luzerne County residents, and limiting in-person meetings among employees in the building. Additionally, the company worked with employees who had no child care options because daycare centers were closed and allowed them to either work from home or create flexible work hours. Employees were also allowed to eat at their workstations to limit large gatherings in the lunchroom and clock in and out through a desktop app to avoid touching the same time clock, and some furniture was removed from employee break areas to discourage large gatherings.
Best Cigar Prices typically operates its fulfillment department with one shift running from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. However, on April 6, the company introduced split shifts, with one group of employees working from 4 a.m. to 12 p.m. and another group following from 12:30-8:30 p.m. Cleaning crews work on keeping everything sanitized throughout that entire time and do more vigorous cleaning measures in the half-hour window when no employees are working. On April 8, the company sealed off seldom-used areas of the building to lessen the burden of cleaning crews so they could focus on other areas of the facility. At the beginning of April, the company installed more hand sanitizing stations throughout the facility and on April 24, offered employees unlimited access to a cell phone UV sanitizing chamber, since it's known that cell phones can carry germs that can be transmitted to others even after someone washes their hands.
Additionally, staff members who could work remotely, such as customer service and marketing, began doing that on April 7 and, the same day, the company started issuing hazard pay bonuses for fulfillment workers. And, to help keep as many people employed as possible, Fox said some of the cooks and restaurant staff are temporarily working in the fulfillment department, finance and HR staff are checking temperatures and executives are packing and unpacking boxes in fulfillment. “Anything it takes to get the job done effectively and safely,” he said.
Above all, Fox said the safety measures were instituted to make employees feel secure when they come to work every day. “We sanitize the facility thoroughly both throughout the day and between shifts. The staff loves it and they see exactly what we are doing so they feel safe. We have an open-door policy for any employees who have any concerns. They can come and talk to us and we'll take care of anything they need.”
Fox said Best Cigar Prices has been very busy throughout the past two months and that being diversified and already operating as an e-commerce company enabled it to stay in operation and keep people employed. As Luzerne County gets closer to lifting business restrictions, Fox said he sees little changes to the e-commerce side of the company, as workers were always positioned at a distance from one another and hand sanitizing and stringent cleaning were common practices prior to COVID-19. However, he said he's having discussions with his staff as well as federal, state and local officials on how the restaurant can reopen safely when the time comes. Fox said patrons of the restaurant and retail store will have to wear masks and the company is adding plexiglass partitions at the counters and removing some bar stools to encourage social distancing. Fox looks forward to the time when the restaurant and retail store can reopen and he can welcome the public again.
“We were very busy in the restaurant until we had to abruptly close after just four months in business. We believe it will all bounce back eventually. In fact, we are already making plans for expansion to be ready for when that happens. We will get through this together.”