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San Francisco-based See’s Candies focused immediately on the safety of employees and customers when the COVID-19 pandemic began to unfold. “It is the company’s number one priority in making decisions as they navigate this uncharted territory,” said Vice President, Food Safety and Quality, Iris Galanis-Eshoo. In its shops and manufacturing facilities, enhanced social distancing and sanitation practices were implemented; the attendance policy was modified, encouraging sick employees to stay home; telecommuting was implemented for office and administrative staff; and all non-essential travel was discontinued.
The company then closed shops and manufacturing sites as state and local stay-at-home orders were issued. The only other time the 99-year-old company closed its doors was during World War II.
Although See’s is an essential business, it needed to be sure protocols were in place for each facility before resuming fulfillment and shipping of the product. So the leadership team worked to develop safety protocols that would allow the operations to safely reopen and service the online e-commerce business, and look for innovative options to safely serve customers at select shop locations.
“This pandemic has pushed our organization to become more agile and more adaptable to consumer demand,” said Galanis-Eshoo.
By April, See’s was fulfilling e-commerce orders and began testing a new service. At select locations, customers could call and purchase candies over the phone, then come to the shop for a contact-free pick up. Shortly thereafter, the company rolled out its first online service, “Click... Pick... & Go,” at limited stores with strict social distancing requirements.
Customers did not enter the shop as tables are placed outside the doors. Employees stayed inside and were required to wear masks and stay seven feet apart at all times. The seven-foot distancing requirement is a prime example of the safety practices that See’s implemented as it gradually reopened manufacturing facilities and shops. While general social-distancing recommendations are six feet, See’s wanted the additional foot for added safety.
To work on restoration plans for the business and develop protocols to keep employees safe while servicing customers, Galanis-Eshoo and the senior leadership team met daily to discuss safety protocols, the current state of the retail industry, supply chain disruptions, and alternate plans. They also monitored county-order updates and compliance, shared CDC and health department updates, and planned new sales strategies, she said. The company is ensuring continuous and transparent dialogue with the government by, for example, joining the LA County Department of Public Health bimonthly telebriefings for food operators. “We are all learning together,” she said.
In late April, See’s began reopening its San Francisco packing facility. “We started with one line and then opened a second — keeping one line down in between the two for spacing,” Galanis-Eshoo said. “Before COVID-19, we had hundreds of people in the facility, now we are taking our time, bringing people back slowly and thoughtfully to maximize safety precautions.”
Doing it right at See’s means not only implementing new policies, but also training employees to be sure they are aware of, and comfortable with, all the changes, including:
- Employees were called the day before they were scheduled to return. Health screening questions were asked, and the new policies discussed.
- Wellness screenings were conducted upon arrival including employee temperature checks. If they had a fever or other symptoms, they were sent home and told to isolate, monitor, and contact human resources before returning.
- Seven-foot social distancing and masks were enforced throughout all facilities.
- Schedules were staggered to minimize the number of employees waiting in line for health screenings and manage break and lunch schedules.
- Visible markings were placed on equipment seven feet apart to show employees precisely where to stand, such as at packing lines where workers were previously shoulder to shoulder. “It now takes much longer to fill a box of candy, but it is worth taking that extra time to be sure we are following all safety protocols,” Galanis-Eshoo said.
- Following the USDA recommendations for meat facilities, dividers were placed between workers at some of the lines where social distancing is not possible.
- In other areas where seven feet of separation was not possible, such as during team lifting of hot bowls of candy from the fire mixer, the workers were to wear face shields in addition to face masks.
- Extra chairs in the breakroom were sealed off, and tables that previously fit four had only one chair.
- Dedicated teams of sanitors continuously sanitized frequently touched surfaces in each shift.
- Social distancing was enforced in restrooms and lockers as well. New signs were added to alert employees when those areas were at capacity.
- Circular wash-fountain sinks intended for multi-use were now limited to one person per sink.
- Manufacturing lines were retrofitted with clear curtains that were hung from the ceiling down the center of the lines which are only five feet across. This provides a physical barrier for workers because physical distancing is not achievable across the belt.
- Managers conducted daily pre-shift staff briefings to remind them about social distancing and frequent hand washing, and ask for feedback on opportunities they see for improvement.
“See’s is innovating and operating differently, and it’s working,” Galanis-Eshoo said. “Teams across the company are coming together and collaborating to support the new protocols. There is so much an organization can learn from a crisis, and if done right, the company will be stronger and more resilient than ever.”
Additionally, everyone is being oriented and trained as though they never worked there before, “and we are explaining the ‘why’,” Galanis-Eshoo said. “Educating our staff is critical in affecting behavioral change and we are committed to keeping everyone safe.” As to employee response, “They’re excited to be back; they’re happy to be working,” she said. Some employees are understandably concerned, “but when they learn of the changes See’s has made, we are earning their trust,” she said. “Employees who have come back are calling others to let them know about the changes.”
Galanis-Eshoo sees many of the changes continuing into the future. “Our business is changing and evolving with new consumer demands and expectations. People are enjoying the convenience of calling or ordering online and with contact-free pick-up,” she said. “So I see our e-commerce side of the business continuing to flourish even post COVID-19.
“Safety and product quality will continue to be our top priority,” Galanis-Eshoo said. “We are embracing change and the new normal because it is here to stay.”
Massimo Zanetti Beverage USA (MZB) is a vertically integrated coffee company with roasting facilities in Suffolk, Va., and Moonachie, N.J.; four distribution hubs in the US; a coffee plantation in Hawaii; and both retail consumer brands and foodservice distribution.
It is because the company “straddles both sides of the industry” that it faced both sides of the COVID challenge, said Vice President of Research and Development Charles Cortellini. About 95% of the company’s Suffolk facility produces retail product, while its Moonachie facility is primarily foodservice. So, while Moonachie had to reduce its workforce by 75% during the pandemic, its Suffolk plant increased production by 30% to 40%, Cortellini said.
This is primarily because the foodservice lines of Moonachie were not compatible with retail packaging and could not be converted. Even the labeling of the systems are different, as the foodservice bulk product is used in the back of the house and does not need to be attractive to consumers or carry the same labeling as is required for consumer product.
As relates to the MZB’s implementation of employee protection practices during the pandemic, Cortellini said, “I’m a firm believer that if I am not an expert in an area where there are people who are experts, we will follow most of their recommendations. We don’t want to put people in jeopardy.” Included in the company’s practices were:
- “Respect the Box.” To institute social distancing, “we mapped out boxes that are six feet apart,” he said. Work routes were redefined around these, so that where a worker may previously have walked next to someone to get to or from a workstation, new routes were mapped to further distance and provide for one-way aisles.
- Health and Hygiene. Wellness checks with health questions were implemented and workers received increased training on hand hygiene, personal wear, and other personal safety practices. Additionally, MZB receives ½ pallet of hand sanitizer each week for employee use.
- Clothing. Employees are not allowed to enter the production facility wearing the clothing they wore outside. Instead they bring clothing in a plastic bag and change in the locker room.
- Visitors. No visitors were allowed in the facility, unless needed for an emergency situation (e.g., EMTs).
- Work Schedules. Shifts and breaks were staggered to better enable distancing.
In relation to the Suffolk plant, where the state has seen a less severe situation, Cortellini said the company has had no COVID-19 incidents. “We’ve been extremely successful at avoiding situations,” he said. MZB has co-manufacturing in Chicago and New York that have had situations, and had to quarantine the work team. Additionally, he said, “If the situation were reversed (with the company’s foodservice production in Virginia and retail production in New Jersey), Moonachie would be tougher than Suffolk.”
As it is, “Our attendance has been high. Our people are supportive,” he said. And the support for the virus protection effort has gone all the way to the top. “Our CEO embraces that fully,” Cortellini said. “None of this has been a fight.”
In April, recovery efforts also started to be part of the conversation at MZB. The discussions focused on what is essential and non-essential, Cortellini said, with the initial plan being that those who can work from home would continue as long as there are restrictions. A secondary phase had the gradual return of essential workers who were out. “But we’re not going from zero to 100%,” he said.
Beyond that, Cortellini said, “I think there’s a good part of this that we’ll maintain.” Practices such as rerouting for one-way traffic aisles are likely to stay, and “may even help avoid forklift issues.” He would expect that 25% to 50% of that which was implemented will stay. The visitor ban will likely go away, but wellness questionnaires may stay. Perhaps not forever, as it is part of a normal warming/cooling cycle of people’s attitudes. “Maybe we don’t have to do it all, but why not keep some of it? What harm is it to do the right thing for the environment?” he said, adding, “If we find there’s no value in a policy, we won’t keep it.”
One area for which Cortellini expects to see long-term change is that of handshaking. “I expect it will go by the wayside. We bump elbows. It’s become a natural thing.”
And Cortellini’s perspective on the pandemic has changed over time. “I was one early on saying, ‘Come on folks, it’s the flu.’ But now I think it is a brave new world. I think it will become more normal,” he said. “Before 9/11, we didn’t have an antiterrorist group. Now we will have to have an anti-pandemic group, ready to implement new rules.”
“I did not think we’d be able to shut down as much of the workforce as we have. In some areas it has been successful, but our economy cannot withstand this for much longer,” he said. But, he added, recovery needs to be phased in. “It can’t just be a lightswitch.”
In only its third year of business, Just the Cheese, launched by Owner and General Manager David Sharfman in 2018, is weathering through the storm of COVID-19 which has caused significant challenges for food manufacturers that have been in business for decades.
Just the Cheese produces dried cheese snacks, which are sold through national retailers, as well as e-commerce channels, including Amazon and its own website. Though its e-commerce presence is helping the company continue sales, it’s not without its downsides. Typically, fulfillment by Amazon had been easy, Sharfman said. “But under such strain, it’s been difficult to manage our e-commerce supply chain.” In the past, product would be picked up within two days, then be in the Amazon warehouse in 48 hours. So, if it was picked up on a Monday, it’d be available by Friday. “But now we’ve had shipments take up to 20 days,” he said. “So sales are low but not because of lack of product.”
Just the Cheese is one of three businesses of the family-owned Specialty Cheese Company which, since 1991, has manufactured ethnic cheeses, primarily for foodservice.
The pandemic’s main impact on the company was the disappearance of its foodservice business, which includes cheeses such as queso fresco and paneer for bodegas, delis, etc. “All that went away,” Sharfman said. But because the retail and foodservice cheeses are manufactured in the same plants with the same vats, the company was able to “tweak” its product and shift from making five-pound foodservice to 12-ounce retail cheese blocks. So, he said, “The loss of foodservice has been big, but because we were able to adapt other products, we weathered it better than most.”
In fact, he said, the company saw a spike in baked cheese retail sales, Sharfman said. “So we ran overtime for two weeks to keep up.” It also was able to get funding from the SBA coronavirus Paycheck Protection Program, so no workers had to be furloughed.
In addition to protecting its workers’paychecks, the cheese company took steps to protect its workers’ health, primarily through a strong focus on increased sanitation. Sanitizer was added at every door to the facility. Workers were to sanitize their hands, punch the keypad for access, then sanitize again. They were to go directly to the lunchroom and put away their lunches, etc., then wash their hands. Anyone working in the high-care area washes to the elbow, then dons arm sleeves, gloves, hairnet, and beard net (as needed). Because the facility is SQF3 certified, he said, “Our employees are used to that level, we just added some additional handwashing.
“Masks are tricky because it’s not easy to get disposables,” he said. “We’re an essential business, but we’re not essential enough to get masks.” So employees brought their own, but the company provided in-house industrial cleaning of the masks.
Social distancing was implemented where possible, but, Sharfman said, there are areas where workers can’t be six feet apart. And no visitors were allowed in the facility.
As to expectations for the future, Sharfman said, “I think the sanitation upon entry will probably stay permanently. We have lots of high-care areas with bacterially sensitive product, so let’s keep that step.” He also expects to further ramp up the company’s e-commerce. “We were already big into e-commerce. This reinforces that, but we’re also exploring ways to make fresh cheese available,” he said, explaining that he expects that the way customers will start looking at buying foods will change, with more people willing to buy staple foods online.
As such, Sharfman said, it will be really interesting to see how consumer preferences change in the next 18 months and whether they will continue to buy products online when they no longer have to.
Sharfman contributes the continued success of the company to its team. “I’m proud and impressed with our workforce and team. They’re not first responders, but they come in every day,” he said. “When shelter in place went into effect, we didn’t know what expect. But everyone is happy to have a job. We’re extremely blessed to have such dedicated people.”
Hazelnut Growers of Oregon (HGO) has been significantly impacted by the COVID-19 closures. “As a business that has been deemed ‘essential’ by the state, which lumps us into the same group as cannabis dispensaries, liquor stores, and all state workers, we have had to significantly adjust how we do business,” said HGO Quality Assurance Manager Mark Clute.
The business was first hit on the foodservice side as the state mandated the shutdown of all businesses that served food inside, he said. “Then we were hit with a significant slowdown of the retail side as people began ordering over the Internet, and generally only staples, as they were trying to stretch their meager monetary reserves.”
To enable continuation of production at the processing facility while working to prevent spread of the virus, HGO shifted to two three-day shifts of 13 hours per day, instituted separation measures, and monitored temperatures. Additionally, because the company produces product for foodservice, it reduced its labor pool and cut expenses significantly.
Clute sees the impacts as continuing well into the future. “As no new retail product sets will be done this year, the retail side of the business will be the slowest to recover,” he said. “Other than that, it will be a slow ramp up to normalcy, but as we will have a record size crop this year, we will need to be prepared.”