Operators share lessons learned from the pandemic

March 24, 2021

2020 was a year defined by words that took on new meaning for all of us.

  • Zoom
  • Essential
  • Remote
  • Social distance
  • Pivot
  • Flatten the curve
  • Mask

In line with that new vocabulary, operators were faced with navigating uncharted waters, with having difficult conversations with employees and with finding a way to survive a dramatic plunge in revenue – particularly in the coffee service space.

Last week, we looked at pandemic driven technology. Operators weighed in on what worked, what will stick and how the pandemic might impact their use of technology in the post-pandemic world. In this article, the second in a three-part series that explores the challenges faced by operators around the country, I asked industry leading operators to reflect on the lessons they learned while doing business during the pandemic.

Learning on the job

While future business curriculums may soon offer such a class, nothing in any business school could prepare an operator for the challenges of running a business during a pandemic. To survive and maintain, operators needed to rely on their experience and, most importantly, their own instincts.

What the most important lessons you learned while operating a business during the pandemic?

Arthur Siller – Evergreen Refreshments – “We really tried to stay away from what I just considered distractions”

“We learned that we needed to stay focused on what we're truly experts in and what's really going to matter in the long run. Example: There was a lot of talk and some activity around home delivery and new revenue sources that are just well outside of what we are experts in. We had to ask ourselves, 'What is going to truly help us serve our clients better and actually gain more business?’ We really tried to stay away from what I just considered distractions. Do we really want to be the lowest-ranked company in the home delivery business? No, is the answer.”

Judson Kleinman – Corporate Essentials“If you're an entrepreneur, you're an entrepreneur”

“People would ask – ‘What have you pivoted to?’ What am I pivoting to? This is what I've done for 35 years. I'm not going to do something completely different, but you do learn to look for other revenue sources. We did bid on federal food programs to prepare boxes, food packs for all the people that were having food insecurity problems.

“If you're an entrepreneur, you're an entrepreneur. You are going to try to survive and find ways to make things happen. I think it is a little bit more intense because of the significance of the reduction in revenue and the need to be creative.”

C. J. Recher – Five Star Food Service – “I am a big believer in being transparent as much as I can…just being open, honest”

“I learned a lot about how to manage a team, having difficult conversations, managing the unknown, communicating the unknown, business communications and just roster management. I am a big believer in being transparent as much as I can. I think the company is, too, just being open, honest, ‘Hey, this is where we're at. This is what is happening. These are the reasons why.’”

Matthew Marsh – First Class Vending“Our diversification turned out to be the right move”

“We learned that we were correct being diversified – with different types of clients and services. That is something that we have always done, but it helped get us through the COVID crisis. Look at the OCS companies or the pantry service operators that were only doing that one thing. Unfortunately, many are in trouble. Our diversification turned out to be the right move and that was confirmed to me during the pandemic.”

Tom Steuber – Associated Services“We have tried to live within our means and that turned out to be good”

“I've run the business in a very conservative way. At times, I was not sure it was the right move. I can tell you how in some cases - it was a mistake. I should have been more aggressive, but with this sort of thing, which obviously, nobody saw coming, it sure made me glad that I had been conservative. We have tried to live within our means and that turned out to be good.

“The second thing has to do with people management. Within our own company, within our own crew, we had to make some decisions about who were the people that we needed in order to keep the business going and in order to recover, when things started to get better. I would say the lesson is that I learned to identify the people in our organization who were essential to the future of the business.”

Dave Mandella – American Food and Vending – “Customers and prospects are looking for that edge, something new, that fresh technology”

“As a vice president of sales, I learned that the sales closing cycle is a lot longer than it was pre-COVID. If you had a sales opportunity, it used to take 30 to 60 days to sell an account. Now, maybe it takes 60 to 120 days. You can add two months to everything you used to do because there is a lot of uncertainty and everybody is wearing a lot of hats. However, I am starting to see over the past six months that a lot of folks out there are looking for different solutions. When they come back to the workplace, customers and prospects are looking for that edge, something new, that fresh technology.”

Lessons beyond business

As C.J. Recher of Five Star Food Service points out, the pandemic taught us lessons beyond business.

“On a personal note, I think that the pandemic put a whole lot of things into perspective for people about what's truly important in life. Success in business is great, but you've got to take time for the people that are important and the things that are happening in your life that need attention.”

Next month: “Operators dust off their crystal ball to predict the future”


Industry consultant and contributing editor 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. Tullio recently launched a YouTube channel, b2b Perspective, designed to “elevate your business in two minutes” and is currently developing an online course, Leverage the power of LinkedIn to grow your business.

As he is a recognized industry expert in business development and sales, NAMA retained 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.

About the Author

Bob Tullio

Since selling his business in January of 2017, Bob Tullio has been an active industry consultant at www.tullioB2B.com focused on content creation, strategic planning, sales training and business development. In addition to serving a growing client base, he has written over 50 columns and features, providing operators and others with an inside look at how he helped build a successful business from the ground up.

Phone: 818 261-1758

Email: [email protected]


Bob Tullio Best Of Ocs Banner2
Coffee Service

Operators weigh in on pandemic-driven technology

March 17, 2021
About one year ago, it became apparent that the global pandemic was going to have a significant impact on the convenience services industry and especially coffee service, as offices...
Bob Tullio Best Of Ocs Banner2
Coffee Service

Four sales lead strategies on the ‘road less traveled’

Feb. 23, 2021
Technology and b2b business trends have a way of pointing us toward new lead generating ideas. As a big fan of taking the “road less travelled” to generate sales leads, I am happy...