Top Banana ripe for expansion of grocery delivery program

Friday, Oct. 12, 2007

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Top Banana’s Marise Robertson, left, visits the Indian Head home of Jim and Sue Paulin once a month to deliver groceries. Top Banana hopes to further extend service to Charles County.

For most people, grocery shopping is a necessary chore.

It entails wandering up and down aisles, lugging heavy items, standing in checkout lines, fumbling in wallets, loading and unloading the car.

It’s a time-consuming process but one, after a few hours, is done, at least for a week or so.

It isn’t so simple if you’re disabled or elderly. Going to the market could be equivalent to scaling Mount Everest.

That’s where Top Banana comes in and helps out.

For 25 years, the Brandywine-based company has delivered groceries to the homes of residents in Washington, D.C., Prince George’s and Montgomery counties who can’t make it to the store due to various factors, particularly those concerning advanced age or health reasons.

Now the company is looking to branch out and sign up customers in Charles County.

‘‘Some of the most aging citizens in Maryland are in Prince George’s and Montgomery [counties],” said Marise Robertson, a Top Banana volunteer who became an employee.

The growth won’t stop there.

Charles County’s senior population ‘‘is going to explode,” Robertson said.

According to the latest study by the U.S. Census, Maryland State Department of Planning, the local senior population is expected to grow 240.9 percent by 2030.

Currently, Top Banana delivers once a month to Indian Head couple Jim and Sue Paulin.

‘‘You can only call on your family and friends so much,” Sue Paulin said in a press release. ‘‘You don’t want to become a burden.”

It was a similar sentiment that drove Jean Guiffré, Top Banana’s founder and executive director, to start the company.

Guiffré’s mother, who lived only a block from a supermarket, suffered from congestive heart failure and severe arthritis.

When Guiffré visited one day and offered to make a cup of coffee, the older woman had to admit she didn’t have much in the way of groceries in the house.

The act of shopping was too overwhelming for the Guiffré’s elderly mother.

‘‘All her life my mom took care of the family and countless others,” Guiffré said in the release. ‘‘She was proud and feared losing her independence. No grocery programs existed. I knew I had found a huge need ... and my life’s passion.”

Robertson, a married mother of three, also has a passion for helping the elderly. She has always tried to volunteer time to work with older citizens.

‘‘Seniors have so much to teach us,” she said.

Robertson started volunteering when she was single, living in Arlington, Va.

She visited assisted living homes and struck up a friendship with a woman named Kay Starr.

Since then, she has been hooked.

Robertson, who returned to the county after her husband’s job transferred him back from Nebraska, was looking for a way to continue working with elderly citizens.

She is a eucharistic minister with St. Ignatius Catholic Church in Port Tobacco, visiting and giving communion to homebound parishioners and a ‘‘friendly visitor” with a program that pairs volunteers with seniors.

One morning, while making the bed in her La Plata home, Robertson glimpsed Guiffré giving an interview on television.

Robertson immediately called Top Banana and asked how she could help.

Top Banana, which uses the same Pennsylvania distributor as St. Mary’s County grocery chain McKay’s, has a warehouse in Brandywine.

Clients phone in their orders on Monday, and deliveries are made Wednesday, Robertson said.

The company provides customers with shopping guides. Orders are called in; volunteers and employees pull items from Top Banana’s shelves and store the orders until delivery. Perishable foods, such as meat and produce, are added to the orders on the day of delivery to guarantee freshness, Robertson said.

In addition to the more than 2,500 nationally known brands Top Banana offers at competitive prices to major grocery store chains, the company’s employees also carry in orders, put items away and loosen jar lids.

The service charge is $5 to $15 per order, based on a client’s ability to pay. Reduced service fees are possible, too, Robertson said.

While Top Banana has about six Charles County clients, Robertson is busy hitting assisted-living homes and senior centers trying to drum up business. The company needs the clients to justify the trips south to the area.

‘‘The price of gas is so insane,” Robertson said. ‘‘Right now we’re only going into Waldorf. The Route 5⁄[U.S.] 301 corridor.”

Robertson has made presentations at The Maples in La Plata and Victoria Park in Waldorf, often receiving positive feedback. The company just needs to hear from residents who need the service.

‘‘You don’t think about a service like this,” Robertson said, ‘‘but when you do, you need it.”

E-mail Sara K. Taylor at