Meet the Expert: Dolores Falkenstein, Porter Extraordinaire

There are people who come into this world with the tidiness gene, people who have not only an aptitude for order, but also a great delight in finding something messy and out of place, something others might miss, and putting it right. These people become copy editors, dental hygienists — and Gelson’s porters, like Dolores Falkenstein. “I get it from my mom, she’s a detailed person, and that’s the way I was raised,” Dolores says. “People say, ‘You’re always cleaning!’ Well, it needs to be cleaned. The store gets really busy, so there’s always something to clean. And if there isn’t, I will find something.”

Dolores works in our Newport Beach store, and she’s been there about 9 months or so. She came in as a temp, helping to keep the store spic-and-span through the busy holiday season, and she never left. “From day one, the people here were so kind and welcoming and glad that I was here,” she says. “My manager, Fred White, is good people, I’ve made a lot of friends, and I just really like coming to work.”

“It’s the people, it’s the atmosphere, and just everything, really,” she adds. “People here notice what I do, they appreciate it, and that makes me feel good.”

Gelson’s is one of the few, if not the only, SoCal supermarkets to have its own cleaning crew rather than a third-party cleaning service. Dolores says the Newport Beach store has eight porters, and at any given time, two or three of them are on duty, keeping the store clean and sanitized, from the handles on the front door to the bathroom faucets, the shiny floors, and the tops of every shelf, counter, and rack.

“I’ve worked in grocery for 12 years, I’ve cleaned a lot of stores, and I’ve never been in one that has their own porter,” she says. “Because there’s someone here to clean all day, every day, our stores are a lot nicer, a lot cleaner. And because I’m in the store, I get to learn about all the different departments — that’s a good thing.”

Dolores is kind of the special ops of Gelson’s porters. She’s the one who scrubs down the tile walls in the meat and seafood department; the one who takes the trash cans outside, sprays them down with bleach, and hoses them out; and the one who takes apart the pastry case and cleans the glass shelves and windows ‘til they sparkle. She’s also the one we call when, say, an egg falls out of a carton and breaks: imagine the sticky, bright yellow yolk dripping all the way down through the shelves of a refrigerator case. “For that,” she says, leaning into her expertise and tools with obvious relish, “I’d get a bucket of very hot water and bleach, take all the shelves out of the case, wipe up as much as possible, and then spray it all down with Simple Green to lift off any caked-on yolk — if you can’t get it, a little blade scraper will take anything off.”

Keeping our store clean and safe has always been a priority, but with the Covid-19 pandemic, it’s even more critical, and our team of porters has created new protocols to stay on top of sanitizing surfaces. “Every half hour, we play a recorded message and when that comes on, you stop what you’re doing and sanitize your area,” she says. “One of us goes around and sanitizes all the handles — bathrooms, toilets, door knobs, cases, all of it.”

“We did all that before, of course,” she clarifies, “but not like we do it now. You know, we never had anybody standing outside and sanitizing the carts before they came into the store, but now we do.”

Like everyone who works at Gelson’s, the porters always wear masks while they’re in the store, and though she admits they’re sometimes uncomfortable, Dolores is glad to do it. “If you’re working hard, cleaning something, it can be a little harder to breathe, and if I’m really hot and sweaty, my face will break out,” she says, “but we do it because it’s the right thing, it’s what we have to do to keep each other safe — and we don’t want to get Covid, either.”

She adds that masks are the new reusable grocery bag: People are always forgetting them. She forgets, too, so she keeps a supply of masks in the car. “That way, I always have one, and it’s clean — you don’t want to wear them for too long.”

When we ask if the pandemic has changed how she feels about her job, she talks about sadness and gratitude. “I used to drive to work in bumper-to-bumper traffic, and then this happened, and there’s no one on the freeway,” she says. “It was nice at first, now I feel really bad that people are not getting to work. And I feel privileged that I’m still able to work, to help our customers get what they need, and just to be of service to them.”

Dolores says that one of the best parts of her workday is the very end. Not because she’s glad to leave, but because, by then, the store is gleaming. “I clean the store like it’s my own, and it’s very nice to look back at my work,” she says. “The wine bar is at the front of the store, by the door, so it gets really dusty. When the sun shines in, you can see it. I like to clean it all up, stand back, and say to myself, ‘This place is really clean.’”