Operators Show Strength And Initiative In The Face Of COVID-19

April 20, 2020

By mid-March, operators of all sizes in every part of country felt like their businesses had been pushed off a cliff. The fall was both quick and unexpected. There was little time to grieve the loss of prosperity.  For the true entrepreneurs in our industry, it was time to act. 

Having personally experienced the business impact of riots, earthquakes, 9/11, wildfires, the dotcom bust and the Great Recession, cost cutting is job #1 and raising capital is job #2 when facing a major business crisis. In this unusual health related crisis, ensuring the safety of employees and clients jumped right to the top of the list. 

Judson Kleinman: “Everything stopped, everywhere.” 

As New York based Judson Kleinman points out, there’s never been anything like the COVID-19 crisis in any of our lifetimes. “Compared to other catastrophes that impacted our business, nothing ever happened so fast, so deeply, with so much deterioration, virtually overnight. Everything stopped everywhere, and unlike 9/11 and Hurricane Sandy, the condition is ongoing. There is no quick recovery,” said Kleinman, CEO of Corporate Essentials. 

Rob Jessup: “Unlike hurricanes, this isn’t a local issue, it’s a global crisis.” 

Having experienced the brutal punch of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, Rob Jessup, now branch manager of First Choice Coffee Service in Washington, D.C., notes that every branch is on their own in a global crisis. “With Katrina, we could at least look to other unaffected branches to help us and help support the company,” said Jessup, who has about 20% of clients still open for business. 

With the immediate needs of clients under control, Jessup and his team are focusing on revamping routes for greater efficiency, riding with route drivers to improve their skills and focusing on sales training for account executives. “We are doing a lot of planning, trying to anticipate the changing needs of our clients once they start coming back to the office,” he said. 

Arthur Siller: “Proactive communication with clients is critical.” 

“Clearly, the safety of our team members, our customers and their families — that's our top priority,” said Arthur Siller, VP of operations and business development at Avanti Markets Northwest. “We took a very proactive approach acting on that and communicating that message to our clients.” 

“Our first approach was reaching out to our clients with an official letter explaining what steps we were taking internally and what steps and procedures we were taking in their specific location to ensure safety and sanitization,” he remarked. “We even posted our specific procedures at the locations we are serving. We want clients to know they can trust us and that our standards, which we consider excellent, will be maintained at an even higher level.” 

Siller said his company has developed training programs, is practicing strict sanitization procedures, has placed restrictions on business travel, is emphasizing social distancing and “anyone who is showing symptoms of any kind must stay at home,” he added. “Another step we've taken — we've had our suppliers provide a letter outlining what procedures they are taking to ensure the safety of their products and ultimately the safety of our employees and our clients.” 

C.J. Recher: “We are letting our customers know we’re an essential business and still here to serve them – now more than ever.” 

For C.J. Recher and his team at Five Star Food Service in Chattanooga, Tenn., the focus is on transparency – both externally and internally. 

“We’ve put out multiple memos and updates to both our employees and our customers,” said Recher, who noted that Five Star created a COVID-19 response page on their website with company updates, links and information from NAMA, the CDC and state health departments. “We’ve communicated all updates on social media as well – specifically letting our customers know we’re an essential business and still here to serve them – now more than ever.” 

Customers are appreciative 

Recher found that his clients reacted positively to their proactive approach. “Our clients are appreciative that we are here to support their business and their hardworking people through these challenging times,” he said. “Lots of goodwill and loyalty is being built." 

Siller has seen a similar experience with his clients. “As a result of being so transparent, our clients are more trusting of our service and they are very thankful in many cases that we have taken such a proactive approach,” he said. 

Every operator who was interviewed agreed that the need for their services is particularly intensified in businesses that are open right now. “For those customers that are still open and coming to the office, we've in some ways become their only source of food and beverage during working hours,” said Siller. “Stores are closed, restaurants are closed, they are not leaving the office and not everyone can afford to have food delivered every meal.” 

Optimism and opportunity 

“In many ways, it is exciting as a manager to help navigate your company through a challenge like this,” said Jessup. “We are going to adapt to client needs. If they feel better with a different type of equipment — brewer or water — we will get it for them, because they need to feel safe.”  

For Kleinman, it is another chapter in his entrepreneurial journey. “I’m optimistic. We have overcome challenges before,” he said. “When you have a good team of people around you, that helps.  Unfortunately, some operators will not survive.  At the same time, this crisis will make us operate more efficiently and we will see some new revenue opportunities emerge.” 

Industry consultant Bob Tullio (www.tullioB2B.com) is a content specialist who advises operators in the convenience services industry on how to build a successful business from the ground up. As he is a recognized industry expert in business development and sales, NAMA hired him to write and narrate the new online course, “Selling Convenience Services,” which is now available. Use discount code B2B10 for an instant discount and for free access to upcoming Q & A Webinars from Tullio in the coming months. Here is a free sample of the course.