By Christina Barrientos, Marketing Associate for Sysco Central Texas, Inc.

Everyone knows times are difficult these days. With social distancing and limitations set on where you can be, as well as, a curfew being enforced by the local police department; there is likely stress and tension at home. Working for a major food supplier for local restaurants from Laredo to Zapata, I see the restaurant industry suffering the most through all of this and I wanted to share my perspective on the current crisis and how local restaurants can pivot their strategy to survive.  “TO-GO” ordering is limited and not available in most restaurants. Not to mention, unfortunately, it does not provide enough income to have a restaurant remain open. As a result, they are just closing as a means to survive and crossing their fingers for the future. Up and coming restaurants that were just about to open have been halted since the city has sent notice that non-essential businesses must remain closed until further notice. Instead of being furloughed, most restaurant owners have had to make the difficult decision to simply let go of their employees with no promise of rehire since they are unsure if they will be capable of reopening once this coronavirus pandemic has ended. Working in the food industry has given me the opportunity to know certain things that are not immediately known to the public. In an effort to avoid as much human contact as possible, preordering several weeks ahead has made fresh product scarce. Eggs and dairy have shot up in price by an astonishing amount, yet beef seems to be streaming along just fine. Chicken is available, albeit, at a higher cost than normal. Fresh chicken wings are mainly unavailable with no set date on arrival until further notice. As a result, restaurants have had to purchase frozen wings, adding to labor costs and time so they are thawed in the correct way. I anticipate these restaurants will risk delaying orders and losing customers for being without product. As of the writing of this article, Smithfield Foods, the world’s biggest pork processor, said Easter Sunday it will shut one of its 48 plants indefinitely due to a rash of coronavirus cases among employees and warned the country was moving “perilously close to the edge” in supplies for grocers. Slaughterhouse shutdowns are disrupting the US food supply chain, crimping availability of meat at retail stores and leaving farmers without outlets for their livestock. Here locally, grocery stores are running low on product and are in no hurry to restock; they are using this pandemic to take advantage of back stock and getting rid of product that is normally hard to sell. The food service industry is suffering as well. I’ve heard some are being faced with having to let go of employees that have been with their company for more than twenty years and furloughing office workers. Food service representatives are being told to stay at home as much as possible to avoid contact with people. Food service drivers are being provided with masks and paperless invoices to minimize contact with customers. They also are instructed to sanitize between deliveries and are given a special sanitizer at the dock to use before they go home to their families. Because deliveries have reduced to an extreme amount, delivery trucks are now being leased out to certain chain grocery stores to help keep those drivers paid and employed.The food service representatives are being faced the pressure to maintain sales quotas. Without fresh product at the ready to deliver, food service providers want their salespeople to sell as many cleaning supplies as possible. The issue with that is the product is currently unavailable and dates for the supplies’ arrival continue to be pushed back. Reps are also at a high risk of losing their job if they do not keep up with sales quotas and it causes stress amongst everyone. Their job security is also threatened along with furloughed office employees, who are critically important and assist the outside food service reps. Some in the inside and outside sales departments are not worried about being furloughed, but of being fired if sales do not continue. Liquor stores and beer sales are booming, though. Here in Texas, the people that deliver and stock these items are considered essential workers and are ready to present a document stating their essential worker status in the event they are delivering and restocking beyond curfew. Beer is at an all time high, with distributors resorting to hiring temporary workers and offering overtime to employees who will take it. Certain towns are seeing an influx of product rather than a lack as well. For example, pinto beans are fully stocked in New York while shelves run empty in other sections. Locally, we are fully stocked on fresh produce. Ramen is being purchased by the case and milk is being purchased in bulk. Buying in bulk can have its downside. Consumers are upset when trying to return it due to spoilage. Grocery stores are being wary of over-buyers as well and refusing to allow returns on items like toilet paper, paper towels, milk, eggs and beef. There is no shortage of dry supplies, but this pandemic is causing mass hysteria and making people feel as though they need to over stock on certain items. By doing so, it has forced retailers to limit certain items in order to serve as many customers as possible. Unfortunately, people who are overstocking on toiletries, sanitizers and cleaning supplies are being caught by law enforcement for trying to price gouge product online. In these tough times it is important to know that hoarding product prevents others who truly need the product from purchasing it.

On a positive note, restaurants can become “pop-up” shops, or grocerants.

The term “grocerant,” merges the words “grocery” and “restaurant,”. In response to the empty grocery store shelves across the country, Sysco is providing an opportunity to transform your restaurant dining area into a pop up shop where your customers can shop for essential pantry items, while getting their meal to-go. The move is an effort to provide a profitable solution and help pivot foodservice operations, provide nourishment and a sense of reassurance in the community. This alternative, temporary, business model during this crisis will help restaurants bring in customers safely to purchase the essential pantry items that they need for their families.  Pop Up Shop products will vary by location but will include essentials like as eggs, condiments, bread, toilet paper, etc. When local restaurants fill out a sales exemption form from their Sysco ordering representative and participate in this program, Sysco will provide them with a Pop Up Shop Toolkit including marketing tools and social media outlets, to drive the message effectively to their customers.These types of stores provide an advantage to the customer who wants to avoid waiting in lines to enter a grocery store for certain essentials. It also helps maintain social distancing; less furthering the risk of getting into contact with an asymptomatic COVID-19 carrier. Please reach out to me if you would like more information or to sign up. Once all of this is over, restaurants and several businesses are still going to have a difficult time recovering if they are able to reopen. Customers will continue to stay out of these businesses due to lack of funds and waiting lists for unemployment. The stimulus package has until December to arrive to your house thus further postponing funds. Bills will have to be paid to catch up before we spend on dining experiences. Restaurant owners will need to continue to pay bills and equipment leases for frozen products. I anticipate this will be a struggle for the long term. But there is something we can do to ease the pain many in the food industry face. In these hard times, it is important to support your local pop-up stores and grocerants. Social media will be a great way to find where these stores are appearing so you can shop and make a difference. Remember to stay safe, practice social distancing, and take a positive outlook on having to stay home by spending time with your family by playing together and laughing!

We hope you have enjoyed this article from this month’s issue of Dickerson Digest. We thank Christina for her insight and her contribution to our newsletter.

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