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Surge in demand for immune-support teas, highway passes for workers: How North Bay food makers are handling the virus shelter orders

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Read other business coverage of the COVID-19 outbreak.

The North Bay Food Industry Group, known as FIG, is a member-based organization founded in 2013 to support the growth of the specialty food and beverage industry in the region. FIG has 55 member companies representing thousands of North Bay employees. In 2016, FIG became an independent nonprofit organization.

The Business Journal caught up last week with Carolyn Stark, FIG’s executive director, to discuss how member businesses are moving forward during the COVID-19 crisis.

Most of (FIG’s members) feel that this is going to last a lot longer than four to six weeks. They’re planning on eight to 12 weeks of closed office space.

How has FIG been working with its members during this pandemic?

CAROLYN STARK: The fundamental purpose of the North Bay Food Industry Group has always been the sharing of best practices to create successful businesses and to help our natural-food products community thrive.

Since the COVID-19 crisis started, our companies have been sharing through email and through conversation what they’re doing in response to it. We took the email-thread communications chain to a different level … and we’ve begun weekly executive calls.

What came out of the first call (on March 18)?

STARK: We had well over 22 people on the call. It was led by Xavier Unkovic, the president of Amy’s (Kitchen), and Blair Kellison, the CEO of Traditional Medicinals. … We talked through what we’re doing now that the shelter-in-place has been instituted.

This has definitely impacted the profits of our companies, as it has everybody else. But the employees are first and foremost, and creating a safe and healthy environment for them, as well as continuing to create safe and healthy food, is a priority for all of our members.

What are some of the changes FIG’s member companies have put into place?

STARK: Well, it varies from company to company. … A manufacturing company has to divide their staff into the office staff and the manufacturing staff.

Some of the companies are putting a bigger time between the shifts so that they can contain the people in a shift in a unit. As they move through the shift change, they’re able to then do some decontamination, and then move the next shift in. So, there’s no physical interaction between those shifts as they’re making their changes, which is a good way to minimize the spread of the virus, should it be present.

Have any of FIG’s member companies had to halt manufacturing operations at this time?

STARK: No, because of the demand. (For example), Traditional Medicinals manufactures three of the best-selling immunity (support) teas. They’re experiencing extreme growth in those teas, and they’re focusing their manufacturing on that.

Are any of these companies’ office staff now working remotely?

STARK: There are certainly people working from home. In each of these companies, and in one company, in particular, (Traditional Medicinals) felt that the fires of our unfortunate recent past (2017 and 2019) has really prepared them in many ways for this because they quickly put their emergency plan into place, which provides virtual private network, or VPN, access, for employees who need to work at home. They had a cache of laptops to give to employees who now need to work at home.

Many of them (such as Amy’s) are asking people to stay home, not just if they’re sick, but if they’re a vulnerable population — (age) 65 or older — or they have an underlying health condition, they’re just saying to please stay home.

Are you hearing of any layoffs?

STARK: With the exception of companies that have retail operations in addition to manufacturing operations, the layoffs have been fairly minimal. Their greatest concern is for their employees and how they can retain them and take care of them at the same time.

I understand Costeaux is one of the companies that had to lay off staff because its retail stores had to close.

STARK: Yes. Its manufacturing operations continue to deliver product to retail outlets.

You mentioned there was recently an incident involving an employee driving to work.

STARK: Something that was very interesting is that (one of the companies said it) provided letters for all their employees, so that as they’re traveling to and from work, if they get stopped, the letter verifies they’re on the road because of essential business.

And someone on the call piped up and said, “Yes, I had an employee get stopped by the CHP this morning.”

How are FIG’s members looking at dealing with the pandemic in the long-term?

STARK: Most of (FIG’s members) feel that this is going to last a lot longer than four to six weeks. They’re planning on eight to 12 weeks of closed office space. It varies by company, of course, and it’s also part of that “plan for the worst and hope for the best.”

Read other business coverage of the COVID-19 outbreak.

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