Written by Ronald Cropper
As you know, I run a vendor managed business inside the largest food distributor in the world, and I feel like I am standing on the shore watching a tsunami coming. The problems come in concentric circles as restaurants close, and you realize that tons of innocent people are out of work without any wages. Then it dawns on you that the relationships we have developed between the farm to table restaurants and the small producers they depend on have been shattered.
Let me explain the current scenario. Suddenly, with no restaurants open, tons of farmers are looking at me asking “What do I do now”? Next call: one of our retail grocers asking can we double our orders? Closely following comes a call from the corporate office of our major distribution partner informing us deliveries and receiving will be cut from six to three days a week. Welcome to Whack-a-Mole: The Professional Edition.
Emergencies are happening all around us and make no mistake the impact of this, from the agricultural and ecological point, is a disaster and we will be talking about it and feeling the effects of it for the rest of our lifetime. Restaurants may come back but not at 100%, and retail may continue to build but not at the rate we have seen in recent years. In the short term, we will not return to normal, even when allowed.
The humane and logical question to ask as we look back at these challenging times is: What could we have done to protect the farmer better? In my opinion, we would have been sharing their product with other markets and processing it for shelf-stable offerings with co-packers. For example, we would have been taking protein and creating some type of charcuterie. In fact, this will have to be done in the near term if we are going to design a regional food system that can withstand future shocks.
Our current reality presents an exciting opportunity; one that beckons us to create a new paradigm because the existing “farm-to-table” supply chain was not well-conceived and hasn’t scaled to meet the challenges we face. The following are some things we see on the horizon, broken down by category. But first, a quick statement to say distribution as we know it today will have to transform if only to mitigate risk. This transformation will, of course, change slotting, pack configuration, delivery times and most everything else.
Moving forward I think that foodservice will see changes that include but will not be limited to:
- Fewer buffets, self-service facilities, and fast-food restaurants – The general public is becoming more educated about cross-contamination and warier of the behavior of others. I anticipate that this knowledge will lead to a decrease in demand for this sector of the business.
- Physical distancing measures in some form will remain – Restaurants, supermarkets, grocery stores and other food business will continue social distancing measures to protect staff and customers.
- More employees will respect illness protocols – Food workers who have traditionally worked while ill will be less likely to continue this behavior. Food business management and co-workers will be understandably reluctant to work with someone showing signs of illness. This may result in businesses changing their leave rules.
- Continued use of Personal Protective Equipment – The use of PPE will continue after the pandemic subsides to protect both workers and customers; this probably means the use of disposable menus.
- Increased personal hygiene – The importance of handwashing etc. has become more ingrained.
- Increased restaurant sanitation – Most food business will have greater respect for health and safety legislation.
Moving forward I think that retail will see changes that include but will not be limited to:
- People will shop less frequently. I also think people will limit their number of stops per trip out.
- People will stock up. Now that people have adopted the habit of shopping for seven-plus days at a time, the stockpiling trend is likely to continue.
- Goodbye browsing, hello planning. The days of spending hours browsing through the aisles may be over. If stores keep up two-cart social distancing rules, the days of impulse buys while waiting to check out may also be a relic of the past. Instead, expect more lists.
- Curbside pickup and online ordering will be big. After this is all over, I can see shoppers continuing to order online, especially those who, before COVID, struggled to squeeze shopping into their busy schedules or found shopping to be physically challenging.
- So long to samples and self-serve stations. It is unlikely that many stores are going to bring that practice back anytime soon, experts say
- Long-lasting produce will be popular. Diet trends demonized potatoes, but during quarantine they have become a lifesaver, we will see more trends toward longer-lasting vegetables.
- Frozen foods and canned goods will be favored. When farm-to-table and buy local movements surged in popularity in the early 2000s, frozen and canned goods got a bad rap. But they have made a huge comeback recently.
- Smaller stores are making a comeback. Consumers have become all too familiar with hour-long waits at big-box retailers, so many smaller grocers have seen their businesses boom.
Much is going to change in the food sector, and consolidations are inevitable. The next few years will be fun and filled with great opportunity hopefully we will come out the other end a more robust industry with resorted values fairer to the farmer and small producer.