Food service giant executes pandemic pivot


Sysco found itself forced to improvise last spring, such as helping convert closed restaurants into pop-up grocery stores

The pandemic tore a hole in the hull of Canada’s biggest food service supplier as thousands of restaurants and institutions closed.

It also caused Sysco to sail into an iceberg of product oversupply as deliveries continued after its sales slumped.

That caused a “pandemic pivot,” Kim Doherty, Sysco’s manager of Saskatchewan, Manitoba and northwestern Ontario, told the Fields on Wheels agriculture logistics conference.

“In a matter of days our world changed,” said Doherty.

However, after scrambling to figure out how to move food and help keep its customers alive, the company thinks it has not only managed the COVID-19 storm, but has also created new business lines and customers for the post-pandemic world.

“We believe that coming out of this pandemic we will actually be a stronger, better company than we were when we went into it,” said Doherty.

During March, as restaurants and public places shut down across Canada, Sysco found that its customers had disappeared while deliveries from suppliers continued.

“Customers went dark…. We got backed up.”

At the company’s Winnipeg warehouse, a long line of trucks stretched from the unloading doors and down local streets as Sysco ran out of room to store the fresh and frozen food, as well as non-food items, that it supplies to businesses across the region.

A task force within the company tried to figure out what to do, improvising quickly and entering areas of food service it had never considered.

It began helping restaurants with closed dining rooms convert into being suppliers themselves, but to consumers directly.

“We turned over 100 of our customers into what we called pop-up grocery stores,” said Doherty.

That happened during the first wave of the pandemic and is happening now, in the midst of the second wave.

The company also began offering its wholesale products to nearby Indigenous communities, who had had their supply chains broken by pandemic complications.

Sysco’s warehouses in Regina and Winnipeg opened on Saturdays to allow people to drive up and order the sorts of staple foods that had suddenly become scarce.

“We gave them an easier way to go shopping,” she said.

“It was a lot of protein and a lot of produce…. That was what told us there was a need in our communities to supply food for their homes.”

That early approach with Indigenous communities encouraged Sysco to launch the Sysco at Home program, which allowed consumers to buy directly from the company, something impossible before the pandemic.

A website was established and bulk, wholesale-priced goods were made available, and quickly Sysco picked up customers.

“We offered them quality restaurant products at prices they could afford,” said Doherty.

They picked up about 6,000 customers, with a good percentage becoming repeat users. The average customer was a mother with a number of children, and from an above average income home.

Often these customers would buy the bulk products and then share them with extended family, friends and neighbours, the company found from surveys.

As the months of pandemic have marched on, Sysco has redesigned some of its web pages and other places where the public interacts, realizing the way it speaks with food service providers might be confusing to average consumers.

“We had a lot of food service sizes and language in there that consumers wouldn’t necessarily understand,” said Doherty.

The company hired chefs and other consumer-oriented experts to help it with its direct-to-consumer campaign, which turned out better than expected.

“We believe Sysco at Home is something that’s here to stay,” said Doherty.

An offshoot of the program has been established to supply distant Indigenous communities.

“A lot of the supply chains to these communities was disrupted to the point that they were concerned about getting a healthy food supply to their communities,” said Doherty.

The company has directly supplied about 140 Indigenous communities in Saskatchewan, Manitoba and northwestern Ontario since the pandemic struck.