By Suzanne Ma
While the pandemic has presented some of the biggest challenges food businesses have ever faced, it’s also been exciting to witness so much innovation. We’ve seen hundreds of businesses across Canada and around the world get creative and pivot literally overnight in order to thrive in this fast-paced and unpredictable world. From farmers and grocers, to breweries, bakeries and meal prep companies, everyone is getting on the innovation bandwagon.
When COVID-19 hit, grocers in particular experienced an unprecedented spike in demand. But consumers who normally shopped at retail stores faced empty shelves, long lines and stay-at-home orders. So, many turned online and formed new behaviours – and there’s mounting evidence these new behaviours are here to stay. A recent study of nearly 60,000 U.S. shoppers projects online purchases will account for about 21.5 percent of total U.S. grocery sales by 2025.
This is just one of many exciting new trends in the world of grocery. Here are some more:
Trend #1: Shop local
The local food movement is undergoing a renaissance thanks to COVID-19, with local farms, producers and CSAs seeing a significant uptick in demand.
“We got lucky in that we didn’t have any supply chain interruptions,” says Jesse Bradley, fleet manager at Local Foods, a retail market and wholesale distributor in Chicago. “Whether or not there is a pandemic going on, crops are still going to be growing and farmers are still going to be harvesting. Our ultimate strength is how high-quality our product is and where the produce comes from. When you buy apples from us, it’s really the freshest food you can possibly get outside of going to an orchard.”
Such local producers or distributors – also known as “farm-to-table” or “farm-to-door” – present an enticing offering: First, supply chain transparency gives consumers a sense of security, knowing exactly where their food has come from. And second, fewer touch points means a much lower risk of contamination.
As a result of the pandemic, local farms and food hubs have raised their profile as a healthy, sustainable and resilient source of food for communities around the world.
Trend #2: Home delivery is everywhere
As people stay at home for their health and safety, home delivery has become a critical offering. The pandemic has forced grocers to meet this demand in order to keep their businesses afloat. Toronto-based wholesale grocer Bondi Produce – which traditionally supplied restaurants and institutions – is a great example.
“Our business took a big hit,” says warehouse supervisor Claudio Bondi. “We locked ourselves in a boardroom and said ‘How can we stop the bleeding?’ We had always wanted to get into home delivery and expand our product range, and this was our chance to test those waters.”
Within two weeks, they put up a new website complete with an online store, and then retrofitted the back of the wholesale warehouse to house grocery and home delivery items. The team then integrated delivery management software which allowed them to plan and execute on the hundreds of home deliveries orders that came flooding in as people refrained from going into traditional retail grocery stores.
“Right off the bat, it was a huge hit. And because we’ve implemented delivery management and routing technology, our home delivery business has the potential to scale. We plan to continue to offer a home delivery service even after the pandemic is over,” Bondi says.
Trend #3: Zero waste
Local food businesses and their consumers are often passionate about protecting the environment. In fact, the movement towards zero waste is gaining momentum across all industries. But when it comes to running a profitable business, sustainability isn’t easy to achieve.
“If you are not organized and ready for a zero-waste, returnable packaging model, it can actually turn into a liability very quickly. But if you plan ahead, you can actually increase your margins,” says Jeff Pastorius, founder of On The Move Organics, a company that delivers local and organic food to communities across southwestern Ontario.
On The Move makes their deliveries in large Rubbermaid bins, and smaller items are packaged in glass jars within the bins. After deliveries are made, these containers are picked up on a subsequent delivery, sanitized and prepped for another delivery.
“People will often pay a deposit of one dollar on a jar, and this would normally cover the cost of disposable packaging. So, even if the customer doesn’t return the jar, we’ve offset the cost and reduced risk – all while maintaining our zero-waste strategy,” Pastorius explains.
Implementing an efficient zero-waste program takes time and effort – but it’s worth it if it means staying true to the company’s core values. “This is an industry where you need to take your punches and learn how to make this work in the interest of the Earth not imploding,” Pastorius adds.
By taking a hard look at the opportunities in front of them, these companies are making the best of a tough situation. Typically, rethinking their business model was the first step to success, and home delivery has become a saviour for many food suppliers.
Suzanne Ma is co-founder at Routific, a delivery management and route optimization solution that helps local food businesses scale up home delivery operations.