Craig Anderson, Overwaitea Food Group's general manager of operations for Canada's three prairie provinces, says Fort McMurray is usually a bustling place with traffic and people coming and going in all directions at any time of day.
But there's an eerie silence this week as residents begin returning home after last month's devastating fire.
"Things are unusually quiet," Anderson said from the Save-On-Foods store at Fort McMurray's Stoneycreek Village mall just minutes after it officially reopened on Wednesday.
It was the first of the banner's three locations in the city to reopen.
Only a few other local food stores have also reopened, including Safeway and Walmart locations in the city's centre.
Anderson said a small but steady trickle of customers had been coming into the store since 8 a.m., when doors opened. They've been buying basic food items, cleaning supplies and, especially, water, since a boil-water advisory is still in effect.
"I've been to a lot of store openings, but never one like this," quipped Anderson. "The mood is serious and sombre."
Before reopening, grocers have to adhere to strict guidelines put out by Alberta Health Services.
Titled “Reopening your food establishment after a wildfire”, the five-page guideline contains a series of steps to deal with the potential damages and risks to people and food from fire, smoke, ash, soot, fire retardant chemicals, water and loss of power.
Food in refrigerators, coolers and freezers, for example, has to be discarded if the temperature exceeded 4 degrees Celsius at any time since May 3, when city residents were forced to flee in what was the largest emergency evacuation in Canadian history.
All exposed food items—from open foods and packaged foods (including paper, cardboard boxes, plastic and cellophane) to single-service items and bottles and jars of food with screw-top lids or crown/crimp caps—also had to be tossed.
She said hired cleaning crews were allowed back into the city two weeks ago to begin cleaning and sanitizing the Overwaitea's three stores.
READ: Grocers step up to help Fort McMurray wildfire evacuees
Ten days ago some 70 Save-On-Foods' employees from across Alberta, including "Fort Mac," began arriving to restock and rebuild the stores, starting with the Stoneycreek location.
The city's regular residents were only allowed back on June 1.
"Food stores are considered essential services," noted Dickson Olmstead.
In addition to reopening stores, she said Overwaitea has delivered 13,000 welcome-back packages of pasta, cookies and other pantry basics in re-useable bags (because of Fort McMurray's ban on plastic bags), and turned over $364,000 in donations from customers and staff to the Canadian Red Cross (which translated into nearly $850,000, thanks to matching commitments by the federal government).
According to Anderson, the Save-On-Foods crews initially lived in makeshift camps when they arrived, but have since moved into hotels or homes, if they live in the area.
He said the biggest challenge now is getting the reopened stores staffed.
"Management is calling team members to let them know we're open again," said Anderson. "But a lot of them haven't returned yet. Things are still in a state of flux."
Other food stores have been dealing with similar challenges in Fort McMurray.
"It’s been a major effort by our teams to ensure the stores were ready when the residents started coming back," Keri Scobie, director of communications for Western Canada Sobeys, wrote in an email to Canadian Grocer.
"We had 150 people dedicated to getting the stores ready to open, working closely with Alberta Health Services and other emergency crews during the preparation phase to reopen.
"We’re essentially fully stocked and should have almost everything our customers need," added Scobie. "Obviously, the requirements of an effort like this are extremely complex and the dynamics were constantly changing.
Chris Weiss, general manager of the Boyle Co-op, which sells food, hardware, lumber and gas on Highway 63, halfway between Fort McMurray and Edmonton, said sales have remained brisk since the exodus on May 3.
"We were open all night those first three days to make sure people could get gas," Weiss said.
He said many evacuees have stayed for the past month in Boyle, where many of the town's 1,000 residents have either put people up or allowed them to camp in their yards.
But Weiss said there has been a steady flow of traffic north from Edmonton since Wednesday, when a voluntary return to Fort McMurray went into effect.
"There's a reverse flow going on now," said Weiss. "There's a steady flow of vehicles loaded up with families and pets and fridges and stuff. It's quite a sight."