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Ocean Heroes: How do Restaurants and the Companies That Supply Them Stay Afloat During a Pandemic?

August 11, 2020

US Foods: Safely Reopen

Credit: US Foods

US Foods is a valued MSC partner that has been working hard during the pandemic to support the restaurant industry and their customers. They’re working closely with their partners and other independent restaurants reopen, stay safe, and continue to operate during the pandemic. 

In 2019, US Foods was awarded a US Ocean Champion Award for going above and beyond MSC requirements to ensure wild seafood is around forever. The company plays an important role in supporting the long-term health of fisheries and aquaculture by distributing sustainable seafood, like their responsibly sourced Harbor Banks brand, and they are continually improving their sustainability and traceability of their seafood supply chain through their Responsibly Sourced Seafood Policy

Restaurants Can’t Work From Home

This year is unlike any other. In early 2020, North Americans slowly started learning about a pandemic that would change the way we work, learn, and socialize. And then, quite abruptly, city after city entered lockdown and quarantine that significantly changed the way we shop and eat.

In addition to impacting our personal lives, work-life balance, and many regular routines, the pandemic shifted the way the restaurant industry works and is likely to have a profound and lasting impact. No longer could people just pop over to their local coffee shop for a change of scenery or grab a drink with friends at the brewery down the street. For many, the ability to eat out was gone overnight. For those working at or supplying the cafes, bars, and restaurants that closed, that change felt just as abrupt and they found themselves facing an uncertain future. 

"The mandates came very quickly and restaurants were one of the hardest hit sectors,” explained Jim Osborne, senior vice president of customer strategy and innovation at US Foods. "Many of our restaurant customers were faced with the difficult decision to close their doors or quickly adapt to the mandates through take-out or delivery optimizations.” 

What Happens to Companies that Supply Food to Restaurants?

US Foods is a foodservice distributor that sells food (and non-food products) to places like restaurants, hotels, hospitals, and more. They were the first nationwide foodservice distributor to achieve MSC Chain of Custody (CoC) certification in 2015, and they work hard to make sure they are offering their customers the best certified sustainable seafood

Because US Foods distributes to many restaurant and hospitality businesses who had closed and slowed due to the pandemic, they were presented with the opportunity to pivot their operations to a sector that was experiencing high demand, retail grocery. 

"Quickly pivoting our logistics and inventory towards retail was a great way to ensure that our workforce and the products that were originally meant for our impacted customers were being used effectively to support the nation’s food supply. It was truly a win/win for our retail partners and the company.” 

While the company managed through the support of new retail partners, it never stopped maintaining a strong focus on it’s existing customer base and the ways in which the company could help their operators adapt to the changing landscape. 

As the world adjusted to lockdowns and companies familiarized themselves with new rules, restaurants began to seek new ways to keep their operations going within the new normal. And this is exactly where US Foods thrives.  

"Our promise to our customers is that ‘We Help You Make It’," Jim said. "It used to be a tagline and now many of our customers refer to it as a lifeline." 

"We were able to help a lot of customers who were in a closed status and get them open for takeout and delivery – by helping them understand how to adapt their menu, establish their online ordering presence, package items up safely, deliver it, and truly accelerate their operations." 

Necessity is the Mother of Invention

"I use the phrase a lot," Jim said. "That ‘necessity is the mother of invention’ and the creativity that we saw across the country with our restaurant operators, especially in those early days, late March, early April was truly awe-inspiring. From pop-up pantries to meal kit deliveries to Instagram or Facebook live demos with the chef on how to cook the product, our customers were showcasing incredible resilience and creativity in the face of great challenges. 

"Not only was the creativity quite inspiring but I was also impressed by how quickly all of our communities rallied to support their local restaurants and the way in which operators were supporting each other." 

Jim recalls restaurants who might have been fierce competitors previously now working together to support each other, and communities helping each other find open restaurants. 

"There’s been a lot of good lessons that were learned that I think are going to shape this [industry] forever."

Helping Restaurants Reopen Safely 

As many states started to manage the virus safely, there was more and more talk of restaurants reopening. But there are few other industries where reopening presents such a challenge - people can't wear masks when eating, the number of individuals interacting with each other is greater, and the length of that interaction is longer than other activities like passing strangers on a walk, or even going to the grocery store. And many of these restaurants are operating with depleted budgets and limited staff. So, US Foods again stepped in to help them make it. 

"We launched a Restaurant Reopening Blueprint. What we’ve found in talking to customers is that they  were very intimidated by the guidelines and how to implement them so we developed the blueprint to help break down the recommendations for operators in a manner that could more easily resonate with their unique operations.”  

The Restaurant Reopening Blueprint provides recommendations and best-practice guidelines for a safe and effective reopening and covers everything from how to space out dining tables to what roles staff need to play in order to keep things running smoothly and safely. 

Safety is key, according to Jim. "Safety is not a compliance thing, it’s something you want to do, and consumers expect it. They want to feel safe."  

US Foods customers can download the Blueprint as a starting point and then work with trained experts to help tailor the plan to their specific needs. 

Bringing Reopening Plans to Life with Restaurant Reopening Kits

In addition to helping customers plan for reopening, US Foods is helping independent restaurant owners bring their plans to life with free Restaurant Reopening Kits

"We gave away thousands of kits to restaurants, not just US Foods customers, but restaurants all across the country to get started on [reopening]. It included our Restaurant Reopening Blueprint, marketing materials, and signs, and social distancing floor decals, and masks, and tamper-evident labels to help get them going on that journey." 

All of this will provide restaurants with the information and tools they need to help their diners feel safe. And, while different parts of the country are reopening in different phases, Jim has started to see a light at the end of the tunnel. 



What's Next for the Foodservice Industry

"We’re definitely seeing positive signs. We’re seeing the overall industry starting to come back, but I do think that there are things that are here to stay," he said. For example, the pivot to takeout and delivery isn't going anywhere.  

"It’s a trend that’s been accelerating for years and this just kind of locked it in." As are family-style to-go meals and some other creative ways restaurants have learned to stay afloat. 

"Not to say that that will be the only thing, but it’s going to be more of a blend of how we dine out for the foreseeable future. I think it’s going to be a combination of things. As restrictions ease, as we understand how to manage things safely, as the environment continues to evolve, we’ll evolve with it," Jim said.

"I think everybody that’s been pent up over the last number of months is in a spot where we’re wishing this to be normal, and I think the one thing we’ve got to be very careful of is that you can’t wish it. We can’t let our guard down. We’ve got to continue to practice social distancing and to practice proper protocols whether your dining in a restaurant, or working in a restaurant, or walking by a restaurant, safety continues to be the top priority." 

Regardless of when you make your way back to out to eat, hopefully knowing that so many independent restaurants are utilizing a safe Reopening Blueprint and/or Kit will make you feel good about practicing necessary precautions while enjoying food outside of your own home.
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