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7 Urgent Questions for Food & Beverage Manufacturers Dealing with COVID-19

By Cher Mereweather

Building resiliency in your business to ensure a sustainable future.

If you’re like me, your inbox is full of emails offering help, webinars and other support to get you through COVID-19. Over the last several days, I have spoken to many food and beverage companies that have shared they simply don’t have time to open any of them.

So, I’m not here to offer advice, but rather to share our perspective on the seven urgent questions that small and medium food and beverage companies need to be answering now.

These questions are gathered from being close to the changing realities that our clients and partners are facing across Canada.

Hopefully, you have answers to all of them. But if you don’t, and this helps you, then we will have done our job.

 

Q1. How are you taking care of your people?

Your staff are likely anxious, fearful for their own and their family’s health, their jobs, their homes, their livelihoods and their communities.

Do you have a solid plan for communicating with them so they are appraised of the challenges the business is facing and how it is reacting?  Have you considered a change management plan?  Are your employees aware of how critical their role is and do they have the desire to show up? If and when there are labour shortages, do they have the knowledge and ability to do multiple roles within the operation? Are you reinforcing and verifying the new processes put in place to protect them and the public? There’s never been a better time in recent history when a business has experienced more change, than right now.

If you have people working from home, have you ensured they have the proper VPNs, internet connections and other office tools they will need to be effective and productive?

And if you are expanding production, do you have a good bonus or overtime system in place to reward staff who step up to help?

Do you have a plan to support them through any mental health challenges that may arise through extended self-isolation?

And, finally, consider doing more regular employee surveys to see how they are feeling, as well as a way to verify they understand all the risks.  Ultimately, you want to create more space for dialogue with your teams.

 

Q2. Do you have enough cash?

One of the biggest and most obvious challenges…

While the politicians are talking about lockdowns of a few weeks, you need to prepare for more. Do you have enough cash in hand to get through this? Have you reached out to BDC or FCC for lines of credit and/or extensions on current loans, or EDC for support with exports? Do you need to consider temporary layoffs or take advantage of the federal work-share program as a way to bring down your operating costs?  Are you taking advantage of the available small business relief programs and deferring tax payments? Have you spoken to your suppliers or customers to negotiate better terms?

I’ve heard from several companies in the last few days that they are counting on getting paid in full and on time as part of their strategy to stay alive. That could be a very optimistic position, depending on where you sit in the supply chain.

Tough times call for tough decisions and if you don’t have enough cash in the bank you need to be making those calls right now.

 

Q3. Are you clear on your supply-chain risk?

Are you importing foreign products? If so, do you have contingencies in place, not just for the immediate future but for the rest of the year? A large number of food manufacturing firms depend on products sourced from Mexico and the US - what are the implications if the virus progresses in either of those locations (as is likely) and supply gets reduced because domestic requirements are prioritized?

One of our clients has reported a significant cost increase in the last week for certain raw materials. Do you have contingencies in place to manage price fluctuations from shortages, or are you in a position to consider switching raw material inputs if required?

Do you have plans in place for significant delays and disruptions in logistics and distribution? Absenteeism due to infection in a distribution center can ripple through the supply chain in hours. You may not be able to mitigate all the impacts, but identify those in which you can, and ensure you are communicating those impacts to your customers.

 

Q4. Are your essential skills covered?

For some food and beverage manufacturers, the combination of increased demand with labour and skills shortages has become a critical issue.

What are the critical skills in your operation and do you have sufficient back up plans in case those individuals are not able to come to work?

Critical skills risk management plans often include staff absences caused by illness. But does your plan include absenteeism caused by needing to care for a sick child (or family member), followed by self-isolation for 14 days?  Can you fast-track your training plan to bring new people onto your line in record time?  

Labour also includes inspectors. If inspection schedules are not able to be maintained, is there a plan to ensure you stay in production?  

 

Q5. What's your pivot?

Farmer’s markets, restaurants (beyond take-out), bars, bulk areas of grocery and almost all non-essential retail is closed. For many firms, this means that market access has been significantly reduced or shut down completely.

Half of the food and beverage manufacturers I have spoken to this week are in an active pivot.

One of our clients who works almost entirely with the food service industry is pivoting into retail.

Another, who depended on restaurants, is developing an application to allow customers to order products for home delivery. Have you considered how existing home delivery and meal kit companies may be able to use your product?

Do you have a pivot strategy? How quickly will it enable you to access new markets? Are you ensuring these new markets are resilient enough to survive the crisis so you don’t have to pivot again? And, is it flexible enough to ensure you are ready to move back into some of your more traditional markets when the world returns to its new normal?

 

Q6. Are you clear on the impact of a closed-door policy?

Food and beverage manufacturing plants are required to have good hygiene and control measures in place as part of day to day operations. Almost everyone I have spoken to is strictly controlling entry into their facilities, increasing sanitizing measures and modifying the distances between people on the line, when possible.  When access is critical, they are checking the individual’s temperature and sanitizing the equipment worked on, before and after.

Are you clear on the implications of completely closing the doors to non-employees and moving to virtual meetings? For example, are you checking the privacy settings of your software platforms and understanding if and how they can use the confidential business information that may be shared during virtual meetings?  How reliant is your operation on external technicians or maintenance? Do you have a plan in place should they no longer be able to access your plant? How are you managing the risk that the virus could be transmitted on packaging, trays, pallets or even raw materials coming into your plant?  NSF International has highlighted the amount of time the virus can live on some of the most common surfaces entering our facilities:  copper: 4 hours; cardboard: 1 day; stainless steel: 2 days; plastic: 3 days.

If one of your employees starts showing symptoms of COVID-19 while at work, do you have an isolation room prepared until they can get home? Would that employee be able to tell public health everywhere they had been for the previous two weeks and who within your staff has interacted with them, in order to play their role in preventing infections? If there is a COVID-19 related risk at your workplace, you do not necessarily need to shut your doors or shut down production; however, you do need take corrective action and put in place necessary measures so that other employees are not at risk.

 

Q7. What is your message of reassurance?

Your employees, other businesses and the general public are looking for reassurance right now.

Your products are a valuable part of the food chain, and the people who buy them want to know that you are on top of things and taking the necessary measures to protect your employees and them. They want to know that you’ve got their back.

And while that’s a lot, particularly for a small business, it’s important to be in constant communication, reassuring your employees, partners and customers that you have a plan and are executing it, and letting them know immediately when things change.

Remember that the heart of every business, particularly in a crisis, is its people. Treat them with respect, ask how they are doing and give them a safe space to respond. Be clear and authentic in your communication with them.

 

It goes without saying that if you don’t have answers to some of the above, please address them soon. If you’d like our help to do that, just let us know.

As always, we at Provision are here to help you make food more sustainably. And today, in the middle of this pandemic, being sustainable means, first and foremost, being resilient.  As I have watched the Canadian food industry ban together, I am incredibly proud to say I am a part of it. As an eternal optimistic, I have no doubt that we will get through this and be stronger when we do! 

I thank you for taking the time out of your incredibly busy day to read this. I hope it will help you build more resiliency in your business, so we can all ensure a sustainable future. To learn more about how we are helping our clients get food and drink to Canadians, check out Provision’s essential services here

For more COVID-19 business resources, the Guelph-Wellington Business Centre has done a great job of compiling and organizing what’s available for small businesses and entrepreneurs.

 

Cher Mereweather

President & CEO

cmereweather@provisioncoalition.com

P 519.822.2042 x1

C 519.803.6395

 

Tags: Sustainability, Operations, Food and Beverage, Covid-19

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